Rena's Memories

Nazi in Ukraine

My mother had recently learned English when she wrote this. I made a few grammatical corrections.

It was a hot summer, the middle of June, when early in the morning bombs were dropped on the airfields near the city of Kiev. By noon when the war was officially declared lines formed at every store. The stores, full the day before, were now completely empty. There were hard times before, so the lack of food was not new to the Soviet people. They patiently got up at five in the morning and formed lines in the hope of getting food, or clothing, or anything else that was for sale. However this time the conversations among the people on the line were different. “Did you hear on the radio they say the German’s kill all the population as soon as they come in.” “No. It’s not true. They burn villages and take people into slavery.” Other stories were told at this point, one more horrible than the other. Sometimes they were interrupted by sirens and people ran away into shelters forgetting about everything except their lives.

The question of whether to leave Kiev or stay was on everybody’s mind. Some left early and were lucky to go by railroad or truck.  When my family wanted to leave the only possibility was to walk away on the only open road, already crowded by the army. There was no water on the road - the wells were dry. many who started gave up and returned.

By September the city was completely surrounded by the enemy, I remember sitting in school and listening to the monotonous sound of the cannon balls lying over our heads. It was interesting to be only eleven years old and to face a dangerous situation. Adults were praying for the enemies retreat while children played a new game, racing to get as many pieces of steel from the enemies bombs as possible.

The Soviet soldiers started to leave the city. They did not know where they were going since not a single road was open, but an order was an order. It seemed as though the streets were moving. People on the sidewalks were loaded with bags while soldiers were in the middle of the street. One group would be carrying their belongings into one part of the city while another group moved in the opposite direction.  Many people buried food and clothing in the ground to protect them from fire.

The random movement of people pushing carriages and carrying bags or suitcases lasted a few days. Then everything became strangely quiet. The army had gone, leaving behind fire and torn bridges. And we waited for the unknown.

After a quiet night, the population realized that there was no government. Not a single official was left in the entire city. It was wartime, the enemy was expected at any moment and laws and morality did not mean anything anymore. Hungry people tore down storages, restaurants and shops, looting whatever they could find. In my neighborhood they looted the wine store and soon drunken men could be seen in the middle of the day.

When the Germans came most people hid in the shelters and the streets were desolate. Suddenly footsteps were heard. The curious looked out. The most courageous even walked out into the street. To our surprise, the German soldiers did not kill anyone. Moreover, they gave candy to the children. 

For the first few days the city was filled with the soldiers of the front line, the men who were ready to be killed at any moment. They were plain people taken away from their families. They petted people and fed the population. But in two days they had left and the military government took their place.

After three days of German occupation the buildings started suddenly to blow up - the time bombs were functioning. The fires started. German commanders immediately picked five hundred people on the streets and shot them to death - the killing started. Those killed had nothing to do with the explosions. They just happened to be in the streets. More explosions occurred - another three hundred innocent people were murdered. That all happened within a weeks time. Half of the city was ruined. The fires had not stopped before the orders were posted all over the city. All Jews were ordered to come within three days, bringing with them their winter clothes and important belongings. In my school we never even knew who was a Jew and who was not. The order was a shock to all of us. No one knew what was going to happen. The general opinion was that the Jews were going to be sent to Poland or to Germany, since the meeting place was near the railroad. The greatest problem were the intermarried families and their children. Most of them did not want to separate and went together. There were a very few who decided to stay despite the threat of being shot. 

Our Jewish friends promised to write. Days passed but we never heard of them. A rumor spread that there was a lot of shooting at night near the cemetery. Maybe the Jews were killed? As time passed and we saw more and more cruelty, there was no longer any doubt that the Jewish families, even the children, were murdered. 

There was no bread for three months. The markets were empty. The country folk were afraid to go into the city to sell food. 

After six pm nobody could be in the street. Occasionally a German was killed. Then several men in that neighborhood were picked at random and shot.

I walked around the house to find an old piece of bread - no hope - we could eat only in our dreams. Finally Germans allowed markets to open. They were also so “kind” as to give us a bread ration of about two pounds a month. The country people needed clothes and the city needed food. However it was not easy to trade. One day the markets would be open, another day they would be closed. But in spite of what the order was trade continued, if not in the market, then in homes, despite the danger of disobeying the order. 

Markets were surprise places. Once we came and were horrified: in the middle of the market place three young men were hanging on the lamppost. We never found out what happened, though as usual there were stories going around. 

Once in a while the markets would be surrounded by Germans and all the young and middle aged people would be taken away and sent to Germany as slave labor. Soon only children and the very old were safe in the market.

It was not easy to bring food into the city. First, it was hard to walk as much as forty miles a day carrying a heavy load. Secondly, the Nazi patrols could take the load away. We had to cheat to survive. Children were a great help in getting food and fuel. Boys from about eight years old could be seen buying cigarettes from Germans, then reselling them for a profit or trading them for food. The same happened with liquor. 

There was a store where only Germans could buy. They sometimes sent children to bring them their food. We always managed to sneak food for ourselves too, helped by the fact that the store was staffed by Ukrainians. This was the most dangerous way of getting food.

The first winter we had the hardest time. To get water we had to walk several blocks - there were only a few places where water pipes were functioning. Families lived in small kitchens and fuel was scarce. There were many ruined houses that were not completely burned. If there was still some wooden parts we would go and get them despite the fact that the house could fall down while we were doing it.

Soon there were no wooden fences left. Old furniture was also used as fuel. In my neighborhood there was a big building where Nazi resided. Once in a while they got a delivery of peat which was first dumped in the street and only later moved into the cellar. It was a new kind of sport to walk near the peat with a bag and pick as much as possible. After all, no one considered that stealing. It was German fuel and to cheat Germans was a virtue. 

Getting food and fuel replaced games and school for children.  Nazi said that we were too stupid to learn more than to read and write. Therefore only the first four grades were opened in the summer. The older children were helping their families to survive. It was easier for them than for the adults, because it was harder for them to get into trouble with the Nazi.

No matter how dangerous it was to walk into the country and back, or to go to the markets, or to move around in general, still we did move and succeed in getting flour, potatoes or peas which were the main food products of that time. We forgot about the existence of meat, milk products, or sugar. 

There were those who could not move around. Almost an entire army was captured near Kiev. There were thousands of prisoners of war whom the Germans did not feed. If these unfortunates happened to be working in the street cleaning rubble we tried to sneak food to them so that the guard did not see. It was forbidden to associate with the captured. Those lucky men who had families and whose families asked for their release, were released to go home. One of our friends succeeded in getting her husband released but he died from malnourishment the day he was released.

At the beginning of the Nazi occupation the rules about the POWs were not as strict. Some war prisoners worked for individual officials. These officials let them out once in a while to earn food by helping people carry water or chop wood. I remember we had several men coming to our apartment. One of them always looked very worried. One day he stayed longer than usual. I saw my mother giving him civilian clothing and a bag with food. She wished him good luck as he was leaving. Later my mother explained that the prisoner decided to run away and cross the front line while it was still near. He was Jewish and it was particularly dangerous for him to stay longer. We hoped he got away safely. Later there were others whom we provided with food and wished good luck.

Finally summer came. All the land was used for planting potatoes and life was easier -  at least it was warm and the trips into the countryside were not as tiresome. It was around this time we first saw the advertisements about working in Germany in “wonderful conditions”. There was no response from the population. Then the order followed that all between the ages of 14 through 45 had to go to Germany to work. An exception was made for the sick. I was afraid they would extend the age to twelve and then I would have to leave. This was the time when only children were safe in the streets.

Nobody wanted to go into slavery and people cheated as much as they could. I was lucky that my father was 57 and that my mother was sick. However we had to part with many of our friends. Many boys ran way into the woods. There they organized and tried to do as much to harm the Nazis as possible. They were the guerillas. 

In this way, two years under Nazi occupation passed. There are many other facts that can be mentioned. One of these was the fear of those people who chose to report on their neighbors. Suppose they wanted your apartment. Under the Soviets they would report that you were a Nazi. Under the Germans they would write to the Gestapo that you were a communist or a spy or a Jew.

 

Some people would pretend that they were of German descent. That way they could shop in the German store and send their children to the German high school. Some really did have German ancestry but those were few. We used to tease one of these proud “Volksdeutsche” calling him “falsch-deutsche” (meaning false German) until his mother caught us and told us that she knew we were all Jews and that if we did not stop teasing her son she would tell on us to the Gestapo. After this my friends and our families lived in fear for several weeks. One of my friends was especially frightened because her father actually was Jewish. Her mother was able to conceal it because her father was away in the army.

Clicking on most images will enlarge.

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This photo is marked 1941 on the back, the year the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

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Over 600,000 Soviet Troops were captured outside of Kiev - the largest encirclement of troops in the history of warfare.

From the English language Wikipedia article, Volksdeutsche:

In Nazi German terminology, Volksdeutsche (German pronunciation: [ˈfɔlksˌdɔʏtʃə]) were "Germans in regard to people or race" (Ethnic Germans), regardless of citizenship.

These terms were used by the Nazis to define Germans on the basis of their "race" rather than citizenship and thus included Germans living beyond the borders of the Reich, as long as they were not of Jewish origin.

The Nazi goal of expansion assigned the Volksdeutsche a special role in German plans, to bring them back to German citizenship and elevate them to power over the native populations in those areas.

By the summer of 1943 the cannons were heard again and the other side of the river was on fire. Germans were retreating and burning villages and new crops. Again people were moving around the city trying to get their belongings into the safest place. I was in the middle of digging a hole for food and winter clothing in case of fire when my friend came and said we were all ordered to leave the city. We had to move out in three days. Whoever stayed would be shot. 

We didn’t know why we had to leave. Some guessed that the Germans wanted to fight in the city and were afraid of the unfriendly population. Others thought that the Germans wanted to build fortifications. No matter what, we had to move out. 

Again the city was on the move. This time it was not at random, but in one direction; westward, out of the city as the Nazis ordered.