15 years after the battle of Stalingrad
My family used to live in a “Krasniy Octiabr’” (Red October) settlement. We had our own well-built house. My father worked at the “Barricades” factory, my mother – at “Krasniy Octiabr’”. In the first months of the war, trains with wounded soldiers started arriving in Stalingrad.
Hospitals were set up in the city. Our elementary teacher, Anna Nikolaevna, established a concert brigade which included schoolchildren of different grades.
My children and I also participated in hospital trips. The first hospital we visited was in Krasnoarmeisk. Some children sang, others read poetry or danced.
The soldiers liked the song as much as they liked Anna Nikolaevna. She was elegant and beautiful. Her “golden lock of hair fell on her temple”. My sister sang songs from the repertoire of Lydia Andreevna Ruslanova. She had a strong voice, which she later lost after suffering a contusion.
In the summer of 1942, we dug trenches in the steppes near Stalingrad, accompanied by our mother’s younger sister Taja, who was between 18 and 20 years old at that time. We were given shovels and canvas gloves. Digging the earth hardened from drought was very arduous. We had bloody blisters all over our hands. Not long before the battle of Stalingrad aunt Taja got married with a Red Army’s lieutenant. He was sent to the frontlines the very next day along with his platoon and died shortly thereafter. Aunt Taja then moved to the house of her mother-in-law.
Our parents were working, and we, the girls (the oldest was 12 years old, I was 10, and the youngest was 7 and a half), used to hide in the basement during the bombardments. After each bombardment aunt Taja rushed to our home to check if we were still alive. But one day she did not come. Later, when our mother returned from worked and learned that aunt Taja never came, we decided to go and check if she was alright. Their house was nearby, but when we got there, the only thing we saw was a giant crater in the ground. We found part of a human hand several meters away. We were able to tell that these were the remains of our aunt because her ring was on one of the fingers. We buried all the pieces that were left of her.
On one of the first days of September, in the evening, our father, who was working at the “Barricades” factory, rushed home to check if we were alive. We decided to go to sleep in the basement. That night was when a bomb exploded near our house and destroyed one of the walls, the one near which dad slept. We woke up because of the explosion. There was smoke, dust, ashes and our father’s rattle. Our oldest sister started looking through the rubble for our father, and found him. As she held his head, her fingers slipped through a crack in his skull and into his brains. His head was punctured by metal shrapnel. Another shrapnel shard went just between my mother’s and youngers sister’s heads (they slept close to each other), fortunately, without hurting them. Our father died there, right in front of us. And we, three exhausted, hungry girls and our mother, who was only 28 at that time, had to dig through that soil that was hardened by summer heat, to dig a grave for our father. We wrapped him in a blanket and buried him.
Then we moved to a “cleft” that had been dug beforehand to provide shelter from bombardments. But soon a bomb exploded near that “cleft”. The blast wave knocked the door from the hinges, and my older sister, who was standing next to it, was thrown out to the surface. She landed 4 meters away from the “cleft”. She got a concussion, and temporarily lost her hearing and speech. Her kidneys were also damaged. Eventually, she died from the kidney damage. She almost made it to 43. We decided to move to the bank of the Volga after that explosion. We sprinted and crawled between the bombardments, covered by twilight, to get to Bannij ravine, and then, to the bank of the Volga. Fortunately, we were able to find a vacant blindage on a steep bank of the Volga behind the Krasniy Octiabr’ factory, close to the hoisting plant. There we spent the remaining days and nights of the battle of Stalingrad.
In October, the factory became a battlefield. Death could find us anywhere: in a basement, or in specially dug shelters. For example, the family of my father’s brother (who fought on the frontlines and died), who lived near Stalingrad, decided to take shelter in the “cleft”. A mother with seven children and the neighbors’ family entered the vault. The bomb hit the “cleft”. The bodies of everyone inside were blown to pieces. Only the oldest cousin of my mother survived, miraculously; but she lost her mind afterwards.
We were tortured by hunger. There was no food, not even our daily rations. Soldiers visited us from time to time to give our mother some bread, usually around 100 grams. For four people it was almost nothing. There were times when we had no strength left to move at all. The blindage was always dimly lit – the size of the window was around 30 square centimeters. We used to light a small furnace made from a shell that was given to us by the soldiers. We had to go all the way down to the Volga to get water from a hole in the ice. The right bank was steep, so there were poles dug into the soil with a thick rope tied to them. The only way to go down to the river or to get back up to the blindage was to use this rope – we had no strength to take any other road. There were sleighs down there that we used to move water cans from the ice hole to the bank.
One day, when I was near the ice hole, I heard a woman scream somewhere down the river. She was drowning and calling for help. Her screams were loud at first, but then faded.
Once, I also slipped and fell into the ice hole. But the sleighs clang to its edges. These sleighs and my guardian Angel helped me to get out of the water. My clothes were immediately covered with a layer of ice. That was the state in which I got back to our shelter. Afterwards, when the war ended, I had to be hospitalized three times. My arms and legs were temporarily paralyzed, I could not walk, they used to carry me around on a stretcher. The last “military assault” on my health happened when I was 24. My mother asked the doctors “Will she ever walk?” “Only if the heart endures”, they responded. Such were the consequences of that “winter swimming” in the ice hole in the Volga.
Stalingrad was a picture of horrible destruction. There was nothing but ruin for 40 kilometers in every direction. Carcasses of burnt and broken buildings, with black eye-sockets of mutilated apertures, standing in dead silence. The debris from collapsed buildings was scattered everywhere. The land was furrowed by explosions. There were thousands of corpses of the city’s defenders and fascist soldiers, streets blocked by broken bricks, mangled fittings, broken vehicles, plowed by aerial bombs, shells and mines.
The Secretary of Stalingrad regional party committee A. S. Chujanov later wrote: “The city lay in rubble, the fires in the ruins of labor settlements were dying out. The basements smelled of smudge and smoldering corpses. None of 126 factories were operational, 48 were erased from the face of the Earth. “Krasniy Oktiabr’”, “Barricades” and “Stalingrad Tractor Factory” were like dead giants.
The “Krasniy Oktiabr’” factory, behind which our family’s blindage was located, was on the primary direction of the assault. An incredible metallic taiga was in front of our eyes: a chaos of broken and fallen fittings, ceilings, roofing, brick piles, demolished walls and pipes.
The City Council of People’s Deputies initiated a census. On February 2nd, 1943, there were 32,181 living inhabitants of the city. More than 30,000 were situated in the Kirovsk district. Other districts, where combats took place, had only 1,515 inhabitants: Ermanskij (now Central) district had only 33 people, Tractorozavodskij, Barrikadnij, Krasnooktiarskij had 764, four of which were my family. There were children among the survivors. Weakened by hunger and thirst, they looked terrible. Each rib, each vertebra, each joint was visible under their skin. Their sunken eyes expressed unchildish sadness and fear. These children could not speak loudly, and they forgot how to laugh. Their mothers, looking at their children with sadness, were not in a better condition.
Only God knows how we survived. There was no rearward in the battle of Stalingrad. Remaining survivors found themselves on the frontlines.
After February 2nd, 1943, when victory came to Stalingrad, rebuilding had started. Life was still incredibly hard in that destroyed city. People lived in blindages, dugouts, basements, and house landings. The population was in need of everything necessary for a normal life: we lacked food, clothes, shoes, fuel, and medicine. We had no electricity, plumbing, or sewerage. The inhabitants buried the dead themselves. A lot of effort was needed to clear Stalingrad from the remains of enemy vehicles and debris.
On February 13th, 1943, our mother started working at the “Krasniy Oktiabr’” factory. Every adult, and some children, took part in clearing the ruins. My sister and I worked among the others.
We received bread cards. We had bread daily. My mother’s sister, who had 5 children, lived in a village 7 kilometers from the Tractorny factory. Even before the battle, our grandmother went there to check if they were alright, and stayed there. The husband of my mother’s sister fought on the frontlines. The Germans plundered the entire village. The villagers had no food, and nobody gave food cards to them, so we decided to share our rations with our relatives. But we needed to find a way to transport the food to the village. Mother was working, my older sister hardly ever stood up after the contusion, so it was me who had to carry the food to the village. I had to pass the drop-hammer yard, to go from the bank of the Volga to the highway, and then follow the highway to the Traktorniy factory. Then I used to walk the ruins and ashes for 8 kilometers, and then a couple more, before I got to the village.
Those were the days when they started to move the German corpses to the highway and pile them by the side of the road. The bodies were deformed because of the frost, sometimes having protruding eyeballs. I used to walk by these piles to the village and back – I had to return before dark, so that my mother would not worry if I was still alive. Quite a lot of the fascists were hiding in the steppe ravines at that time. They killed everyone they encountered with brutal violence, they shot and they stabbed. How many children collecting wood to melt furnace died by their hands, how many exploded on mines…
I felt inexpressible horror when I walked by those piles of corpses. Every time I childishly expected that one of those dead men would grab me. There was a high oak by the road behind Traktorniy factory. I used to rest underneath it. I was still tortured by hunger, even though I had bread in my backpack. We, the children of war time, grew up early. I knew I could not touch that bread; it was for those that were starving in the village. So every time I sat under that oak, I tried, cutting my fingers, to dig out acorns that had been frozen in the soil since autumn to chew at least one of them.
Once, as I was returning from the village, I heard bullets fly over my head. I turned around and saw three fascists. One of them had a machine gun. They were shooting at me! The ravine was the only thing that separated us. Suddenly I felt a burning sensation in my leg, just above my ankle (it was a superficial bullet wound). I was so surprised, I stumbled and fell. The Germans were still shooting at me. I lay on the ground, horrified. But my guardian angel once again averted my death. I even remember being surprised that bullets were falling everywhere around me without actually hitting me. The shooting stopped after some time. After lifting my head a little, I saw that the Germans were gone. I was suddenly in fear again, what if they descended into the ravine and are now heading towards me? That is when I decided to make a run for it. I ran as fast as I possibly could, as if I was running from death itself.
The battle of Stalingrad caught up to me once again, when I was studying at the university. One night in my sleep I saw a bomb flying towards me, whistling. It seemed that I woke up one second before the explosion. Every night I saw either a bomb or bullets from a machine gun flying at me. I was inspected by medical doctors, my brain was scanned, they arranged consultations, treated me in hospitals, and prescribed various injections, but the bombs kept falling and the machine guns kept firing. This went on for 15 years. Then I finally stopped seeing war in my sleep. I know a lot of people who survived the battle of Stalingrad but sadly ended up mentally handicapped from all their suffering.
My story is only a short description of just a few of the events that my family had to face. Each family who had members that survived the battle of Stalingrad had their own tragedies.
Translation into English by Sonnova Julia and edited by David Curry