Saturday, February 17, 2007

Victims, Victors: From Nazi Occupation to the Conquest of Germany as seen by a Red Army Soldier by Roman Kravchenko-Berezhnoy

No matter how many times I think I've read it all when it comes to the Eastern Front of the Second World War, there comes a book which again proves to me that there is always something new to discover. In the end this book is much more than a simple memoir about the Eastern Front.

The author was under German occupation in his hometown of Kremenets, which had been in an area that before WWI belonged to Russia, then after the Russian Civil War and all the border changes became a part of Poland. In 1939 after Poland was invaded, conquered, and split up amongst the USSR and Germany, it became a part of the Soviet Union, then when Germany invaded it became part of German-controlled Ukraine. After WWII it returned again to the Soviet Union and after the breakup of the USSR it became a part of Ukraine. This long and winding process of moving borders sets the stage for the authors impressions during the occupation period by both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

The author's father was in the Russian Army during the First World War and finished it as a Captain. He was very proud of his services to Russia and was even a recipient of the Cross of St. George as well as the Order of St. Anne with Swords. This would eventually get him in trouble with Soviet authorities when Poland was invaded in September of 1939. The reason this book presents such a surprising read is because the author kept a diary during his occupation years. For around three years whatever he witnessed he wrote down, in between these entries the author also puts in other snapshots, as he calls them, of memory that fill in the picture further with events that he might not have deemed important to write in his diary or information he feared might implicate others if his diary was ever found.

The reader is presented with the author's traumatic experiences with Poles before the war began: he was abused because he was a Russian living in Poland. Then when the Soviets came his father was taken away to prison because of his past. Later still his father returned and the Soviets had to retreat as the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. It is this event that the majority of the book is based on. Kremenets is situated in Western Ukraine which means within its population you can find Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Jews amongst others. Throughout the occupation the reader will be interested to find out how these various peoples responded to the Germans and their occupational policies. But aside from the different nationalities there were also different political motivations and of course religion as always played a large role.

The author tragically recounts his last view of a Jewish girl whom he befriended and developed feelings for as she was taken away in a truck to be executed. Another girl who he was friends with was killed during the first few days of the German invasion of Poland during a bombing. Partisans run wild in the countryside and villages are burned to the ground on a daily basis as retaliation. What started off as accounts told again and again about these acts turns to a mundane acceptance of the fact that people are dying and their homes are being systematically destroyed. The Jews of Kremenets numbering around 10,000 were massacred and aside from some what might think, the town knew all of what was happening. Burglars ran into the now empty ghetto that had been set up for the Jews and looted what they could, inadvertently causing fires to spread throughout the ghetto because they had to use candles to see in the dark when robbing the dead.

The author explains how he used to listen to the radio and write down in shorthand all the information he could so as to know where the front was moving and what was going on in other parts of the world. Rumors were spreading through the town (marked by the phrase 'they say that'), some accurate, others false. He had a few encounters with the Germans throughout the occupation but none turned violent or deadly. In the end, after liberation, he decided to enlist in the Red Army. To a large degree he wanted to make his father proud and he wanted to make a contribution and prove his worth to his land and people.
The author's career in the army isn't as well documented and covered because he did not keep a diary since it wasn't allowed nor did he have time to write one. Despite this a few interesting episodes are recounted and make for interesting reading.

One episode which stood out to me was how he mentions that the Red Army fought to liberate territory, not occupy it. Specifically on page 213:
"I will never again be in those parts and visit those graves [speaking of Latvia and those who Red Army men who died there]: I'm not that strong anymore. State borders separate us now, with all the different visas and invitations required. Why will invite me there since the latvians now see Soviets as 'occupiers'? I thought we were the liberators. Those, resting in the mass graves, who are they?"
I don't think I could have said it any better, these men did not fight to occupy and enslave, they fought to free and liberate!

As much as some like to think that the Red Army was a barbaric 'horde' encouraged from Moscow to plunder and rape the Germans, that popular image does not match with the author´s experience. The author did see Soviet vandalism but also witnessed an execution of a Red Army man charged with looting. He also describes how he translated for a German woman who stated that she had been gang raped. The author is certain that she indeed was raped by soldiers of his own army, but he cannot testify about a rape spree. He does not dispute such a spree outright. He simply can´t provide any personal evidence to support that image.

As with other incidents like looting, rapes occurred sporadically and at an individual's initiative, not as part of any Red Army policy. One has to keep in mind that war is war and no one involved in a war comes out with clean hands. While this doesn't justify what the Red Army did, and nothing should, it does put it into perspective and into context. One should recall that everyone was drafted, from the boys that just turned 17 to hardened criminals who were being given a second chance.

There are many more stories and episodes which are related in the book and that will hold the reader's imagination and attention for a long time to come. As I mentioned, having read a great deal of literature on this time period and event I was surprised to see information here that I knew little to nothing about and for that I thank the author. It is a great addition to the literature on both the Holocaust and the war on the Eastern Front.

1 comment:

Gledwood said...

I think it's important that as many facts about WWII are committed to paper while the events still are in living memory. Otherwise so much is going to be forgotten. I mean just think of how many people seriously have denied the Jewish/etc holocaust even though there are countless thousands who testify they were indeed in Auschwitz//etc... I do a blog too: if you want to drop by I'm at, you're most welcome. It is very different!

All the Best now


PS My friend is collecting sponsored comments if you're willing to take part. The url is linked in my top (or second top) post...