They Are 20th in Line: Children Talk About the War

15:00 05.05.2011 • Armen Oganesyan , Editor-in-Chief, International Affairs



"A TANK ROLLED DOWN our street. It stopped not far away... I saw three Germans climb out of the manhole; they were dressed all in black with skulls and cross-bones on their sleeves. Two of them began fixing the tank, while the third went into a nearby house. I followed him. As though he owned the place, the fascist went up to a cupboard, opened it, rummaged around, found some bread, sat down at the table, and began eating. A young boy of about four who lived in the house came up to him and said, "Can I have some bread too, mister?"

The German ignored him. So the little boy helped himself to a piece of bread from the table and stuck it in his mouth. The German saw this, grabbed a spanner and hit the boy on the head as hard as he could. The boy fell, his skull crushed, blood flowing darkly from it." This is related by 14-year-old Vitya Bessonov from the town of Klin.

The book "War Through the Eyes of Children: Eyewitness Accounts" put out by Veche Publishers is not fun reading. Incidentally, the book is not only about children, it is also children's reminiscences about other people who lived through the ordeal and humiliation of occupation with them - mothers tortured in front of their children, children mutilated in front of their mothers, interrogations, beatings, plundering, hundreds of people burned alive in sheds, violence, and cruelty. The book reduces to naught the attempts by some German authors to make a distinction between the Gestapo and the "honest soldiers of the Wehrmacht" who were only fulfilling their duty. All of them hung people, and tortured them, and robbed them, regardless of the type of troops.

The people driven from their homes were live targets for the soldiers who fired bullets and shells at the fleeing crowds of peaceful citizens they had just robbed. One such shell, like a razor, cut off the legs of a head of the household. No one took pity on the mother and daughter, who, after placing the bleeding father on a cart, went from house to house and begged for hot water to tend to the freezing wounded man. But these poor unfortunates were greeted with scorn and abuse from the valorous Wehrmacht soldiers billeted in each house. There were even more horrific cases: "Soldiers wanted to mutilate a small child, draw his blood and cut off some skin from his back to treat their wounded...The mother would not let the soldiers take her son. So the soldiers hung the mother in front of the child and then cut four strips of skin from the boy's back and drew his blood. He also died." And all of this happened in the open, in front of all the residents of the village of Egor'e in the Moscow Region, one of whom, Katya Chuvakova, recounted what she saw. And this was not the only case of what at first seems like an isolated and "unique" instance of virulent cruelty. In Zhitomir, the Nazis drew children's bloodfor their wounded officers in a special concentration camp.

By the beginning of 1943, there were at least 73 million people in occupied territory. An analysis of the statistics presented by N.K. Petrova, D.Sc. (History) and compiler of this book, shows that at least 4.1 million people, including children, perished from the cruelty of the occupation regime. I had occasion to talk personally to Mrs. Petrova, who was distressed that only 1,000 copies of the book were being printed. According to her estimates, only one tenth of the testimonies and archive documents about children during the war have been published. Apparently, there were plans to put out a collection of children's eyewitness accounts during the first years of the war. A typewritten manuscript of 305 pages entitled "Hear Us, O Homeland!" had been prepared, but it ended up not being printed.

Even 20 years later, when Komsomolskaya pravda appealed to its readers, and particularly to those who had been children and adolescents during the war, to step up and tell about themselves, the deluge of letters was carefully filtered. Those chosen for publication were from well-known people, particularly heroes, and not from ordinary people who had experienced the deaths of their close relatives and suffered through the "mundane" hardships of occupation. More likely than not, some of the reminiscences did not pass the censorship of those years due to the barefaced truth they revealed and the question their authors asked over and over: how was it that 37% of our country's population was left at the

mercy of plunderers?

The book is the first to publish a letter from Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ail-Union Lenin Komsomol Youth Council O. Mishakova of November 22, 1941, which speaks for itself: "Our children face difficult times... There is no one in the Stalingrad Region willing to feed the small children and nursing mothers who have been evacuated there. The children are hungry and sick... All of this is happening because our party and Komsomol leaders in particular think it beneath them to engage in what they refer to as 'feeding children.'

"They did not even have a change of underclothes. One hundred eight-year-old children, without shoes and clothing, were led through the town to the steamer. The children's homes were full of spongers who ate our children's food and mistreated them... Once I happened to be on the steamer that evacuated several children's homes. What I noticed on the boat was that most of the best, warm beds were occupied by adults belonging to the service personnel, their relatives and acquaintances, while the eight-year old shoeless and unclothed children were left in the cold corridors." Many children ran away from the children's homes and labor colonies, joining the homeless and neglected.

Even though war dictates its own laws, still it is so hard to read letters from children who were hurt by it, but survived, are now grown up and still, twenty years later, are asking for help. "I am not asking for anything in particular, I would just like to know what benefits are available and what do 'benefits' mean? I can't even find a decent job. I somehow managed to find a job as a conductor in public transport, but I am not even capable of doing that. I can't hope for anything better and I live in an apartment of 14.9 sq. meters with three other people. I have been waiting for four years for a larger apartment, that's all. I am 20th in line." This is what E. Akulova from the town of Beltsy wrote in April 1965, responding toKomsomolskaya pravda's appeal to its readers to step forward on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Great Victory. In 1944, when she was 14, she helped partisans and went on reconnaissance assignments. She was tortured and beaten. Is she still alive?

Of course, many remember the humiliating and "compromising" question asked in any application form: "Were you or your relatives in occupied territory?" Being very young and amazingly naive, at first I thought this was honorable, that it was to my credit. But then I realized it was nothing to be proud of. Praised be God that at least the prisoners-of-war, not to mention war veterans and heroes, succeeded in getting publicrecognition in Soviet times, but, alas, not people who had seen and experienced the other, brutal, side of the war, many of them children.

I remember how a little more than two years ago in the village of Borisovo, near Mozhaisk, an event was held in memory of the hostages, local people murdered by German paratroopers not long before our soldiers arrived. Metropolitan Juvenaly of Krutitsy and Kolomna performed the memorial service at the modest monument. TV-Center, the RIA Novosti, Vremya novostei, and Voice of Russia Radio were covering these events, although mainly it was people who had personally knownthe victims who gathered. However, the most commonly heard comments were, "Why Borisovo, why murdered hostages? What's the deal?" Nearby, a woman who still remembered that day and her father's death was sobbing.

The problem is that even today, they, the living and the dead, are still twentieth in line. And the intention was simple - to establish a memorial day for occupation victims and involve not only Russians, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Moldavians, everyone who shared this common grief.


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