Between Satan & Beelzebub, It Is Sometimes Worth Choosing

Мій перший вірш написаний в окопі,
на тій сипкій од вибухів стіні,
коли згубило зорі в гороскопі
моє дитинство, вбите на війні.

Ліна Костенко

 

My first poem was written in a trench
upon that wall crumbling from explosions
when the stars in the horoscope were killed
by my childhood, executed in the war.

Lina Kostenko
 

Transcribing and translating the interviews for Baba Babee Skazala was fascinating in many ways. I was impressed by the courage, stamina and cheerfulness of the Ukrainian refugees, and the good humor they brought to their harrowing and heart-rending stories. I was impressed, also, by the deep pride they exhibited in their Ukrainian heritage, and their fluent command of our language. But perhaps the most striking part about these stories was the interviewees’ decision to leave the Soviet Union and settle (if only impermanently) in Nazi Germany...

From what I know of Ukrainian history, I certainly expected to find this kind of unanimous resentment towards the Soviets; yet I did not expect Nazi Germany to be a more favorable alternative. Having experienced both the Soviet regime from 1939 to 1941, and the Nazi occupation from then onwards, many of these Ukrainian immigrants willingly chose to live in Nazi Germany – which says a lot about the Soviet Union. 

For instance, Ivanna M. took a three-month-long journey from Ukraine to Czechoslovakia by train, one which had no beds or bathrooms. She subsequently endured two labor camps, one of which was Strasshof, where the food “was impossible to eat.” The Nazis also sent her to work in Germany as an “ostarbeiter.” But even having endured those aspects of the Nazi occupation, she still made the decision to settle in Germany when the Soviet army pushed back against the Nazis in 1943. When she tried to leave Czechoslovakia to go west, the Soviets arrested her at the border and took away all her belongings, but let her go. And she made the decision to go to Germany – barefoot and empty-handed.

 

Another fascinating case, Sophia W. left her sick 2-year-old child behind in the Soviet Union when escaping to Germany, whom her father-in-law would care for while she fled. Dmytro F. went to school under the Nazis, determined to complete his education, though he had endured multiple hardships and humiliations: he was sent to punitive camps (“straf-lager”s) & forced to pick up small rocks under railway tracks, among other things.

 Ukrainian Ostarbeiters Getting on a Train from Kyiv to Germany (PC:  InfoUkes )

Ukrainian Ostarbeiters Getting on a Train from Kyiv to Germany (PC: InfoUkes)

The interviewees explain their rationale for fleeing the USSR. Born in Western Ukraine, they all experienced the Soviet occupation of 1939, and the reoccupation of the territory by the Red Army in 1943. Orysya S.’s father constructed a factory only to see it expropriated by the Soviets, then by the Nazis. Her brother was arrested twice by the Soviets on charges of nationalist activity. Similarly, Ivanna M. spoke through tears about her sister who was executed by the Soviets for participating in the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). Dmytro F.’s family of farmers had their land taken away by the Soviets. 

 
 Joint German-Soviet Military Parade in Brest, Poland, 1939 (PC:  Bundesarchiv )

Joint German-Soviet Military Parade in Brest, Poland, 1939 (PC: Bundesarchiv)

Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands captures this unenviable fate of those trapped in between the front lines of the world’s deadliest war, having to choose between Satan and Beelzebub. In this spirit, interviewee Volodymyr H. clearly sees the Soviet Army as a land-hungry aggressor when explaining his reason for going west: “I was afraid that because Russian army was just very aggressive and I was afraid that they will invade all Europe and they will grab England, everything, so I said, as far as I can go, so it is America.” The Red Army is clearly not a liberator, but just as imperialistic as Hitler’s forces.

These stories are more than relevant today, and not just in the context of the refugee crisis. In many parts of Ukraine, Soviet propaganda still clouds people’s perception of the history of World War Two. I grew up in Kharkiv, a city where many people still see the history of the Soviet Union favorably. Until recently, before the decommunization campaign, I could walk along Lenin prospect and Dzerzhinsky street and see Lenin’s monument in Kharkiv’s central square. Unlike my parents, however, I was taught in Ukrainian history classes about the horrors of Stalin’s repression of the intelligentsia, the secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that annexed Western Ukraine to Russia, the Holodomor famine, etc. To many people in the United States who were raised to hate the Soviet Union and everything it stands for, these stories will seem unsurprising. Yet, for modern-day Ukraine, they shed light on some important topics that have long been obscured by Soviet propaganda. Especially today, when Ukraine is suffering from Russian information warfare, the need for oral history of this kind is especially welcome and dire.

 Demolition of Lenin Statue in Kharkiv, the Author's Home Town, September 2014 (PC:  Kpamua )

Demolition of Lenin Statue in Kharkiv, the Author's Home Town, September 2014 (PC: Kpamua)

Even the Americans' Allied soldiers back in 1945 did not fully understand the oppressive nature of the Soviet state. They were surprised to see, when the Soviets started taking people back home, that the Ukrainians resisted. “There were even cases when they jumped from windows to kills themselves because they did not want to go to Russia, because nothing good awaited them there. Then the Americans started wondering what was going on, why those people were afraid of going back to Russia. Poles went back to Poland, Italians to their country, but Ukrainians did not want to go anywhere, nor did the Lithuanians or the Estonians; they were afraid of coming back. Then the Americans realized who those people were, why they did not want to go back to Russia. They were afraid of being taken to Siberia – even those people who said: “I am going home, they are taking us home” – they were not really taking them home. They took them to Siberia and took away all their possessions.” (Baba Babee Skazala Interviewee)

Timothy Snyder’s book created the image of two evils, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and raised some ethically difficult - and almost unanswerable questions - about comparing them. Yet people caught in between the fronts did face the real, tangible choice of where to live. And the fact that there were many who chose Nazi Germany makes us want to dig deeper into their pasts and tell their stories, especially to those in Ukraine and Russia who have been barred so long from the truth.