Memoir: Yury KLIMOV (1922-2002)

My granddad, Yury Vаsilievich KLIMOV (1922-2002), left 3 volumes of hand written memoirs: over 1000 pages describing his life from the childhood in a tiny Siberian town until the retirement in Moscow. During the war he lived under occupation in the city of Odessa until April 1944. Being drafted to RKKA, he served in a support/labour battalion. He was in Romania, Yugoslavia and ended the war in Hungary. Here is the part of his story describing the last period occupation and his service in WW2.

Chapter: 10 April 1944 – – a sacred day for me and the people of Odessa.

The summer 1942 passed quickly and unremarkably for all the occupants of our apartment. The news from the front that managed to reach us was grievous. German forces had reached the area of the Don River, and were approaching Stalingrad and the North Caucasus area. But Moscow still stood and gave hope to the Soviet people. The German, Austrian and Rumanian press was full of frontline reports proclaiming numerous victories. There were many photo-reports. There was a German magazine “Berliner Illustrated” which was especially known for its glorification of German victories. Looking at its pages I was particularly depressed by the photo-reports showing our POWs: pitiful, exhausted, badly clothed, hungry, ill… But the German troops were always shown fit and healthy, well equipped with automatic weapons, and riding motorcycles or personnel carriers. Everywhere death and destruction, burning towns and villages. The civilians also looked dull and grey. The reporters were clearly determined not to show Russia in the same light as German occupied Europe. All the time the photographs were filled with houses with straw roofs, people dressed in telogreika [a simple bulky overcoat] and ragged foot-wear, women wearing headscarves – such a contrast with the images of French, Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian and even Polish people. Very often and with obvious satisfaction pictures depicted impassable Russian roads: mud up to the wheel axels and on the soldier’s boots up to their knees. They flaunted images of the Russian winter showing their soldiers playing snowballs or football, or taking a snow bath. Also depicted was a panorama of Leningrad (they called it Petersburg) taken through binoculars with a caption proclaiming its imminent capture. The horrors of starvation in Leningrad were vividly presented in order to demonstrate how close the city was to surrender. In the summer of 1942 the main thorn in their side was Sevastopol, which, despite everything, continued to hold out. Can you image – Feodosia, Kerch, Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar in the German’s hands – but Sevastopol fights on. The people of Odessa knew that their fathers and sons were there somewhere in Sevastopol. [The Soviet troops from Odessa were evacuated to Sevastopol in October 1941]. They were holding Sevastopol as they previously held Odessa. But sad news came in the August when Sevastopol fell… The barges with Soviet POWs started arriving in Odessa. Once I witnessed the passage of a column of our sailors under Rumanian escort. It was already chilly as the autumn kicked in, but some of them were only wearing telniaghka [cotton Russian Navy blouse ] and were barefoot. Some had bandages on their heads and hands. A pitiful sight. People who were accidental witnesses to it threw them bread and everything that was immediately to hand (it was near the city’s market – “Privoz”). It seems the POWs were taken to a camp located near the road to Mostdorf at the rope factory. Actually it has to be said of people of Odessa: if they saw POWs, which was frequently, being moved around in work gangs with Rumanian escorts, they engaged in various means to help them with provisions. I myself once had an opportunity to buy them bread and vegetables in the Privoz market in the city. It happened like this: 2-3 trucks with 3-5 people in them drove into the market and stopped in the crowded square. These were some of the camp’s POWs with their escort. People understood right away what was going on and helped as best they could. Bread and Salo [smoked or salted pork fat] and other products were thrown onto the trucks. The guards were indifferent, only concerned that the POWs should not escape. The women were especially generous. With tears in their eyes they did sacred work – saving their brothers, fathers, and husbands from starvation. 

In the autumn of 1942 Germans, with they Italian and Rumanian satellites approached Stalingrad. Their armies seized Armavir, Piatigorsk and Nalchik. Their elite mountain troops reached the Caucasus passes and erected the fascist’s swastika on the top of the mountain Elbrus. The upper reaches of the Don and the cities of Voronezh, and Kharkov were under the heel of occupants. The people of blockaded Leningrad were suffering from terrible hunger. The ancient Russian lands of Pskov and Novgorod were in the fascist’s hands. Moscow still stood. The front line ran from Kaluga to Viazma to Gzhatsk. It was close to Moscow and threatening. Seemingly only a miracle could help! But a new Russain winter was coming – our historical ally. Germans, Italians, Rumanians, Spaniards and Hungarians were waiting for it in fear. They had already had the opportunity to experience it in 41-42, though their front position was not bad. Everyday their newspapers listed the tonnage of sunk American and British ships. 
There were severe fighting going on in Stalingrad…. But then the attitude of the press radically changed… There were more articles describing troublesome overstretched supply routes, bad roads, and problems with communication lines. Frost descended and the 300,000 strong army led by Paulus was surrounded in Stalingrad. Of course without access to objective information it was difficult to comprehend the futility of their situation, but several soldiers [Rumanian soldiers] that came to “Chervony hutor” [a farm where my grandfather was working at the time and where a small Rumanian regiment was also stationed] told to their “colleagues” how they scarpered through the snowy steppes leaving heavy equipment and weapons behind. These rumours gave us hope and raised our spirits. 
Even more, we rejoiced at the three-day long period of mourning for the defeated and captured Sixth Army in Stalingrad. 

All through the winter of 42-43 the Germans suffered defeat after defeat at the front. They covered them up with statements about the necessity of shortening the front line – so called elastic defence. But they hoped to engage in a new offensive by the spring of 1943 and restore their gains. Yet it was more and more evident to me that the victory of Fascism had become a historical absurdity and simply not possible. Especially after the way in which Fascism had manifested itself in Russia – after so many innocent victims and so much human suffering. It also became clear that mankind and the Motherland could only be saved through conflict. Germans nervously grasped at any opportunity to increase their power. The traitor General Vlasov organised so called RLA (Russian Liberation Army), which was host to many traitors, cowards and other renegades. But it was all too late. Many millions of people had personally experienced the reality of Fascism – not how it was presented theoretically by the political classes but in practice. 

The summer of 1943 had already begun but there was a gloomy calmness at the front. For the Germans this was an unusual situation. They did not hide the fact that a new strike was in preparation. But where? On 5th June 1943 German newspapers reported a new offensive near Belgorod and Kursk and that it was progressing as planned despite the ferocious resistance of the Soviet Army. One week later and the press had turned 180 degrees. They are again in elastic defence. But we already knew what it meant. Liberation of our land had begun en-mass. 

7th October – Kiev is liberated. Fighting near Kremenchug and Kirovorgad. Rostov and Taganrog are liberated! The Donbas is liberated. But the Germans stubbornly hold the Don River near Dnepropetrovsk and Nikopol. I and my friends got hold of an old school geography map and every day after work we marked with dots the liberated towns and drew the probable front line. Once I found a partisan leaflet in a field near Mosdorf that contained front line information for November 1943 issued from the Soviet Central Information Bureau. Based on the leaflet we corrected our map.

In December I was chosen together with some other workers on our farm and other nearby villages for work on the ”airfield”, our new officially designated work being 3km away in the direction of the village of “Krivaya balka”. Soon we understood that it was a dummy airfield being built, i.e. its surface did not allow airplanes to land. It was only equipped with the electrical light signals for decoy to attract bombers away from the main airfield. There were about 15 of us and we had to dig a shallow trench for the electrical cable. We were supervised by 5 Germans from the organisation “Orgtodt”. Later we found that they were Austrians from Vienna. Unlike other Germans they were not harsh to us, they treated us well and hated Hitler. One of them once asked me to help him to sell some clothes that he had brought from Vienna. There were 3 shirts, 2 pullovers, 2 pairs of wool gloves and 2 saws, that had obviously come from the German army supplies. On Saturday he and I took tramway and went to the city’s market. We got out at Chumka station and he took me to the barracks where they lived. There was a radio on the table. What a wonderful opportunity! For the first time in 2 years since the war started I could touch a radio. Willy and two others did not have anything against me tuning to the Moscow frequency. I listened to the latest news. What a joy to hear voice of Levitan [the main news announcer on the Moscow radio] communicating the war news. I will never forget that radio news broadcast.

We learned of the Soviet offensive at Leningrad and about which towns were liberated. There was even a report from the front line – a hearty welcome to our soldiers from liberated people. There were sounds of artillery thunder and machine guns in the background. It was so great and unusual to hear, that it felt like I had been liberated myself! I was glowing with joy. But the enemy was right in front of me. Wearing the German uniform. I was being incautious, but it came out well. It seems I was lucky this time too. The Austrians – simple working fellows were not Hitler fanatics. They jokingly asked me what I had heard. I explained them as well as I could using the common military slang, language that was a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and German. I managed to successfully fulfil their request and they were happy for the earned cash, and I got some money too. I kept as profit for my self one sporty looking shirt with two front pockets. The saws were purchased by Semen Vikentievich [the father of my grandfather’s girlfriend], but of greatest significance was that I got access to a radio. Next time I visited them I brought them a six-litre tin of sunflower oil which I bought in the market square using the Marks that I got from the sale. It was common practise for Germans to send home packages of vegetable oil and smoked pork fat. It seems their Fatherland was reasonably famished! I visited them when they asked me for something and used their radio as much as I could. Though soon this became impossible – I was caught by their officer – a German from Hamburg. The Austrians seemed to get a scolding and were probably reprimanded. Anyway they remain as good lads in my memory. Because of my sporty clothes with really broad trousers they jokingly called me “Frenchy”. This nickname stuck with me until the end of my time at Chervony Hutor farm. When Willy said it, it was particularly funny: “Hey, “Frenchy”, kom zu mi!” and so on. Jumping ahead a bit in time I want to say that we were dismissed after the New Year without finishing the work on the dummy airfield.

In the February – March 1944 single aircraft with red stars on them appeared more and more often. They were furiously attacked by the German AA batteries. They were IL-2 or Pe-2 planes and their purpose was reconnaissance. They approached most of the time from the sea and never bombed either the main or the dummy airfields. There were rumours that some attacks were carried on the German and Rumanian ships in the Black Sea and in the Odessa seaport but that they had met with little success. Odessa’s residents know of a case when a Soviet plane was shot down over the seaport and the pilot parachuted in the water. He was picked by a German speedboat but was already dead. This incident is remembered because the Rumanian administration arranged his funeral, openly, with a funeral procession to the graveyard. The local newspapers “Odesskaya gazeta” and “Molva” wrote about it. We understood the message: “Look, Russians, how fair we are. We respect even the enemy fallen in battle.” 

Working on the farm, which was located next to the Odessa airfield, I was witness to numerous air crashes of German, Rumanian and even Italian military airplanes.
Once I was a witness to a rare incident: a midair collision of two airplanes on opposing courses. A German, a bomber Heinkel-111, was taking off while a Ju-52 was about to land. A huge fireball appeared in the sky in front of my eyes…

I also saw how well the newest German air giant, the Me-323, could burn. It was a six-engined super airplane that could lift up to 200 troops. When it took off it looked like it was hovering above the ground and the engine thunder shock everything around. It appeared at the beginning of 1944 and it was a real eye-catcher. And such a “handsome” one crashed at take off burying under its wreckage more than 200 Rumanian troops that were to be relocated to Crimea for resistance to the advance of the Soviet Army.

Once in the fall during a dense fog an Italian two-engine “Fiat” transport crashed. It hit the trees in the territory of our farm. It broke apart before bursting into flames. Later we found various goods it was carrying to Odessa. It was mainly twelve-calibre hunting rifle cartridges filled with №3 lead pellets in flashy boxes and cardboard shells. We collected them by the hundreds. Why they needed hunting cartridges we never knew. Maybe they were planning to hunt pheasants in Caucasus. I also then found a good piece of beaver fur from a pilot’s jacket. Olga made herself a winter hat out of it. 

In the summer of 1942 a German three-engine transport Ju-52 made an emergency landing on our field behind the threshing machines. The plane looked unusual. It had a huge “ring” around the wings. It was meant to search for submerged submarines or anchor mines. It operated on the same principal as a hand held mine detector – induction. Everyone who worked in the field gathered to watch that wonder of German technology. Then, in order to disperse the crowd on the ground, the German pilot fired a long burst from his machinegun into the air. Only then did we understand what he wanted. 

In the meantime the front line approached closer and closer to Odessa. I celebrated the New Year [1944] with the Golen family [the family of my grandfather’s girlfriend]. There was a modest dinner. The old ones went to sleep in the small room. Me and Olga sat on the big couch chatting and imagining what the New Year might bring, recalling the past. From behind the wall, in the neighbour’s apartment, we could hear voices. They were of older lads working in the city. Apart from their voices we could distinctly hear voices of Czechoslovaks from the Czech division in the German’s service. They had recently arrived in Odessa and there was a rumour that many of their soldiers and officers had deserted to the Red Army. The Germans did not trust them anymore and kept them away from the front line. It was apparent that the young company had gathered to celebrate New Year 1944. A gramophone played and there was more and more noise coming from behind the wall after the first wine glasses had been raised. At midnight there were rifle shots and the sky was light by signal flares. We could hear in the neighbouring apartment a toast being raised for victory and for peace. Then they sang the song about the cruiser “Varyag”: “All on deck, comrades, all on deck, This is our last decisive battle…” And I understood that those Czechs and our guys are all good lads, our people.

In January – February the Rumanians started to evacuate all the valuable equipment from Odessa: machinery, lathes, trucks and tramway carriages. It was apparent that they were preparing to surrender the town. Many German servicemen and sailors appeared in the town. From March I stopped going to the Farm. In any case the only jobs they had were as watchmen or looking after the cattle. All the real jobs were taken by the full-time employees. Our team leader, Lihidchenko, was drunk all the time celebrating his son’s return. The son came back in a German uniform. Apparently as early as 1942 he had been captured and then signed up to Vlasov’s army. The father, Lihidchenko, could not look people in the eye, he was so ashamed for his son. Vera, Nadezhda, Luba and Sophia openly scolded their brother for his betrayal. He left soon afterwards, disappearing as quick as he materialised. 

At the end of March 1944 a new order was issued in the city – all civil authority was to be transferred to German administration and there was to be the imposition of a curfew. It was prohibited to wander about without permission from 20:00 till 07:00. For any disobedience – execution. On leaving the town the Rumanian office gave us some good advice – all windows should be covered by shutters and doors should not be locked…
The town filled with refugees. There were locally recruited policemen from the Rostov region, Zaporozhie region, from Nikopol, Militopol and Kuban. There were many people who, from their appearance, seemed to be from the Caucasus. All the Cossack units were dressed in German uniforms with the traditional burka [lamb’s wool overcoat] and of course papaha [lamb’s wool hat]. Many had the traditional dagger attached to their belts. Odessa’ residents had already heard from previous refugees many stories that the worst cut-throats were the Cossacks from Caucasus area. They would cordon off whole areas and force everyone to flee west. All those who stayed behind would be shot without any investigation of their circumstances. These Cossacks were feared above all others. On the third station of the “Big Fountain“ there was a new three-storey school. It appeared to be stuffed with clothes collected from all over Europe after the extermination of French, Belgians, Poles, Jews, Czechs and Slovaks. These Cossack-policemen started to sell or barter the clothes. Some of the clothes had dried blood on them, some had the Star of David – the six-pointed sign that can be seen on the Israel flag today. The clothes were good and fashionable and the Cossacks and Vlasovists sold the stolen goods with little hesitation.

The Gestapo ruled the town now. Once on Preobrazhenskaya Street I witnessed how a German field gendarme escorted a convoy of German soldiers, actually they seemed to me just people dressed in German uniforms. They moved slowly, sad, tired and hungry. This made a deep impression on me. I guess they were deserters about to face a tough future. It was known, that Fascists treated such people harshly. “”Such beast they are. They do not even spare their own”” – such I was thinking back then. –“How can they then find compassion towards the Russian people”?

Quite frequently one could see on a café or a pub door the sign – “”Germans only””. This sign, which evoked burning hatred towards the occupants from Russians and Ukrainians, could also be found on the tramway carriages, in the train station waiting hall, and the toilets. The Germans had their own night cabaret “”Deutsche Ecke””. Obviously entry for Russians was prohibited. It was strange that even the toilets were divided into areas. One for the honourable officers, the other for the ordinary German soldiers. 
There was another unexpected meeting which I want to relate. The Rumanians gradually ran away taking with them everything that could be taken. The town was filling with German rear units and hospitals. Horse drawn caravans filled with German collaborators, policemen and such with their families kept passing through the town.

Once Olga brought home her school mate Verka Lob and her sister. They had met in the Agrotechnical Institute, where Olga was still studying. But the current classes had been cancelled because of the Rumanian administration’s evacuation. Verka was a saucy girl in our student group and personally for me was not at all attractive. Her sister Katia, two years younger, unlike Verka was exceptionally beautiful, very slender and pleasing to the eye. Olga and I knew that Verka had lived during the occupation in the town of Kremechug. It was a surprising meeting there at the institute where Verka and Katia had gone in the hope of meeting someone they knew… We sat at a tabled and served tea. It seems that they fled Kremenchug with a German support regiment where they worked as secretaries. Their behaviour, the tone of their talk, their laughter and jokes, their German-Russian military jargon, their barrack humour – all that spoke of their decaying moral standards. They were open about their love affairs with German officers. They had no regrets whatsoever that they had fled to the West with the Germans. Katia’s speech was especially rich with German oaths and coarse language. It was so striking and contradicted so much with her attractive appearance, that it was difficult to believe. “”German bed warmers”” -– was our conclusion after they left. 

Three days later there was a knock on the door. It was Verka. Big covered trucks were outside our building. Verka said that they were moving further west. Olga and I went out onto the street. In one of the cabins Katia was sitting waving at us. Destiny had given another chance to see them, our schoolmates. For the last time… Later I often recalled that meeting, trying to image what became of them after the war, if they even managed to stay alive. I would not want to be alive if I were them.

To be continued…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.