Monday, March 10, 2008

From Stalingrad to Pillau by Isaak Kobylyanskiy

I'm always thrilled when a new Soviet memoir from the Second World War is released. In practically every instance I always get to learn something new and read about a plethora of experiences the author went through which enrich my understanding of this time period and WWII as a whole. This book highlights Isaak Kobylyanskiy's experiences as a 76mm gunner (gun commander and battery commander) during the Second World War on the Eastern Front while he served in the 87th Guards Division, 2nd Guards Army. To those interested in gritty details of offensive operations that undoubtedly contain hand to hand combat and the savagery of war, you will not find much of that here. In this book you will experience war from an artillery officer's point of view, although this artilleryman was not in the rear, he was right up there with the soldiers in the front lines providing direct fire in support for their actions, etc.

What I greatly appreciated about this book is that it is divided in half. The first half of the book is devoted to the author's experiences during the war and the other half to his thoughts on the war and the people he served with, the Red Army, writing letters, marches, leisure at the front, being a Jewish Red Army soldier, political workers within the Red Army, his views of the Germans (both soldiers and civilians), rear services troops, drinking alcohol, etc. Usually, one hardly ever comes across such a division within a book, most of the time all these ideas are dealt within the pages of the author's experience throughout the war, but there might be some added benefit to having chapters devoted solely to the war and then chapters devoted solely to stories which might not necessarily deal with the war. While in at least one chapter the author highlights the dubious side of some soldiers within the Red Army, he explains that the Red Army was not made up solely of such characters but these were simply people and events which he encountered throughout the war for the first time, these became lessons he learned for life. I should also like to mention that the editor, Stuart Britton, does an excellent job, a lot of contextual information is given to make the books progress and flow smoothly.

To begin, the author discusses his life in Vinnitsa and Kiev before the war began. It was interesting to learn about the author's reading habits, going from children's books to a plethora of foreign works including Twain, Hemingway, Dumas, etc. The famine of 1933 that took place in Ukraine, and other Soviet areas, was witnessed by the author, although he himself, his family, and his school mates did not suffer much. Also of interest was Kobylyanskiy's description of the "Great Purge" years when his father's boss was arrested and the next day the author's father "obliterated" his boss's face in all the pictures he could find in his photo album with black ink, for fear of being arrested himself. The author himself went to such lengths with some of the certificates of merit that he had received. The author's insight into the political situation as the USSR grabbed land from Poland, the Baltics, and Romania was interesting to hear as well as his thoughts on the winter war, which he was not in agreement with.

When the war began the author encountered Jewish refugees from Western territories, including Poland, streaming through Kiev. Eventually, his mother and brother, amongst many others, would be evacuated but he does recount how some Jews refused as they remembered the German occupation from WWI during which they were treated well enough by the Germans, something that is often repeated when looking for reasons why so many Jews 'stayed' behind. The majority, if not all, of those Jews who remained in Kiev would wind up being shot to death at Babi Yar.

The author's story about a Red Army soldier who wandered too far from his own lines, while wanting to do some ice fishing, and then was caught by the Germans was quite interesting. After 10 days the soldier escaped from the Germans and within a half hour OO (osobyi otdel) troops had tracked him down and taken him away. Although the author says they never heard anything more about the soldier, I personally, don't think this should denote automatically that the soldier was executed. While it is a distinct possibility, it is also possible that he was sent to a Penal formation or assigned to convoy duty, etc. In another episode the author discusses a soldier who shows up after being a POW for months, SMERSH (death to spies) officers had no interest in him. As well, when going through liberated territory the Red Army often received reinforcements from the local population, in one such case it was eventually brought to the attention of SMERSH that one soldier collaborated with the Germans in locating Jews and even executing them. He was sentenced to death and hanged.

A moving account is offered of how Kobylyanskiy had to make a choice of putting a gun crew in danger, by attacking a dozen or so tanks and self propelled guns, or letting them take on Red Army infantry who had yet to fully dig in. Without thinking twice Kobylyanskiy gave the order to fire, the end result was a dead gun commander, but the enemy's tanks did not advance. The author's experiences in what he dubbed "The Ravine of Death" were quite telling of the time period. While the 2nd Guards Army failed in their offensive endeavor, and the commanding officer was dismissed, it took a few days to understand that the failed offensive was in fact a huge help for other sectors of the front, namely in the Kursk area, thus the army in the end received some recognition for its actions. One of the most interesting parts of the book is when the author took it upon himself to try and stop a retreating group of soldiers by firing his pistol into the air, cursing, and threatening to shoot them. Eventually, with help from a few other officers, the retreat was stopped and the soldiers went back to their positions. I also enjoyed the rendition of a speech his divisional commander gave, where in he stressed how quickly houses, buildings, and factories could be rebuilt but how precious soldiers lives were; noting that officers should be careful with their men's lives.

Descriptions of Political workers are offered in the second part of the book and prove interesting, in regards to both the good and bad. The same is true for the examples offered of what it was like being a Jewish Red Army soldier and how Kobylyanskiy dealt with the stereotypes of Jewish soldiers, at times risking his life to prove that a Jewish soldier was just as good, if not better, than any other. The author's frankness in regards to his thoughts about Germans was revealing as well as his honesty in detailing sexual crimes and the Red Army. While he himself did not witness any prosecution within his unit for violation of orders from above (which forbid such activities) he did hear from Germans themselves and through rumors about what some Red Army soldiers did and how some Germans suffered. Especially touching was the story of a German girl, Annie, who on her way back home from Pillau was stopped by numerous Red Army soldiers and made to "lie down." The author is correct that this is a part of war, he stresses, and as would I, that this is not an excuse but should be an accepted fact. War is not pretty, innocent people suffer, but their suffering should not constitute cause for hypocrisy. While Red Army soldiers raped, so did western allied soldiers and so did German soldiers, etc.

While I have more than given away a good deal of what this book is about and what it contains within its pages I can guarantee that you'll find all of this and much more.

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