From 1932–33, Stalin conducted a brutal campaign to crush a resistance by Ukrainian farmers. The Russian army isolated Ukraine and cut off all food supplies and seeds. Six to nine million Ukrainians died from mass shootings by secret police execution squads and the ensuing man-made famine called the Holodomor. Huge numbers of Ukrainians were also murdered and sent to Stalin’s concentration camps during the Great Terror of 1936-38.
In 1941 the Germans invaded Ukraine through Operation Barbarossa, and temporarily drove the Russians out of Ukraine. Three years later in 1944 – my mother’s house on the family sugar beet plantation near Pidhayetchena in the Ternopilskiy Oblast in Western Ukraine – was caught in the middle of the movable front between the Germans and Russians. The German army had taken over the house. They had also taken over her grandfather’s house because he was the “Vit” a local governor of about 20 villages.
From time to time a German Major and his entourage would sleep at his house and bring the war inside, displacing the family. One day a Jewish tailor was inside the house in the kitchen and the Gestapo showed up unexpectedly. Their motorcycles could be heard from a distance, and alerted the family of their upcoming intrusion. My family kept quiet inside the kitchen, and the tailor mingled among them. My mom’s grandfather went outside to greet the Gestapo and tactfully kept the officer in the sitting room, preventing him from entering the kitchen. If the Gestapo would have found the Jewish tailor inside the kitchen, they would have shot our entire family.
For years my mom’s stepfather employed a Jewish accountant (Cassier) who did the bookkeeping for our family and several others. When the Germans invaded – that relationship had come to an end. The order had gone out. All Jews had to be rounded up and taken as prisoners. Any Ukrainian caught hiding or helping Jews escape would be shot. The Jewish Cassier, his wife and his three young sons had nowhere to go. One day when the Germans were not there, he came to my mom’s house to meet with her stepfather. They worked out a plan that the Cassier’s family could stay in a shack deep in our woods at the edge of the mountain. The hired hand, Bronko, would deliver food once a week to the Cassier’s family. The war was going badly for the Germans. They confiscated the family horses and went on their way back to the front. The accountant and our family were safe, for the moment. No Ukrainian in the village ever mentioned to the Germans that the accountant was being hidden in the woods by my mother’s family.
About a week later a friend came by and said that the family horses were at an abandoned stable in the next town. My mom’s stepfather went to retrieve them. He was arrested by the Russians, who accused him of being a German spy. During the interrogation, the Russians took broken glass and poked his eyes out, letting him bleed to death. News of his horrific death and the approaching Russian army spread quickly. During this time many other Ukrainians were arrested and sent to Siberia, to prevent them from escaping to the West. A few days later the German Major received their final retreat order. My mom spoke German, and the major warned her that the Russians were approaching. My mother’s grandfather, the Vit, decided that the family must leave immediately. He thought the Allies would defeat the Germans, and then the Russians, and the family could eventually return. It would be the last time any of them would ever see Ukraine. My mom’s grandmother and the hired hand stayed behind.
Our family quickly packed all they could into the family wagon and joined the caravans heading west Czechoslovakia. During the harrowing escape, our family was bombarded by the Russians, to prevent them from escaping, and by the Germans who thought the Ukrainians were Russians. Our family survived, but the family dog Sultan, was killed by an artillery blast that nearly wiped out the caravan. The Ukrainian caravans all met up in the Czechoslovakian town of Koshice on the western side of the Carpathians. The Germans were occupying the town, and confiscated the wagons and horses, and only permitted the Ukrainians to take their clothes with them. The fleeing Ukrainians were then loaded upon freight trains heading to Austria, and disembarked in one huge camp called Strass Hoff, that was already occupied by refugees from the Baltic countries.
From this camp, the refugees were forced to work in German factories, lumberyards and farms throughout Germany. As a result, many Ukrainians died in Allied bombardments of German factories. This ordeal went on till the end of the war, when a new problem arose. After Germany’s defeat, Germany was carved up by the four victors, the US, England, France and Soviet Union. The Russians demanded that the Allies repatriate all the refugees from Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic counties. The Allies could not understand why the Ukrainians and the Baltics could not return to their homeland. The Ukrainians were forced to hide out to prevent their repatriation. But, many were sent back by the Russians to Siberia, bypassing Ukraine. All refugee groups sent representatives to the Allies to explain that they would be sent to Siberia or killed by the Russians immediately upon their return. Finally, they were allowed to stay under the protection of IRO, the International Relief Organization, which created the DP Displaced Persons camps In Germany and Austria. The Ukrainian refugees remained in the camps for 5 years, and were resettled all over the world in countries that would take them. In 1949 my family immigrated to New York with only a few belongings to start a new life in America. We never heard of what happened to the Cassier and his family.
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