By Stepan Fedenko
Translated by his grandson Damian Oleksiuk with some light editing from Voices of Ukraine
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Stepan Fedenko was born January 3rd, 1926 in the Ukrainian village of Uherci, now Uhry, southwest of Lviv. He studied there up until fifth grade and spend sixth and seventh grade in the nearby town of Horodok. After that, he studied for two years (1942-1944) in craft school in Lviv. During April 1944, he and his father were arrested by the Germans. In 1946, after gaining his freedom, he finished high school in a camp for immigrants in Karlsfeld near Munich in Germany. In 1950, he immigrated to the US. In 1951, he joined the American army, where he served for two years. From 1953 to 1956, he studied mechanical engineering at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1956, he became a partner at Cylectron Corporation. In 1957, he married Anna Drohomeretska and they had two daughters – Mary and Donna. Mary married Alex and had two children – Damian (the book’s translator) and Christine. Donna married Markian Fedorowycz and had four children – Olenka, Levko, Lys, and Kalyna. In 1993, Stepan retired and he now lives in Warren, Michigan, outside of Detroit. At 89, he’s still an active member of the choir and will always hope for peace in Ukraine.
CHAPTER ONE – History:
Autumn 1939 brings us to Galicia, the region of Western Ukraine that holds our dear village of Uherci [Ed: now Uhry, 48km SW of Lviv], along with the nearby town of Horodok, and a bit further northeast, the colorful city of Lviv. My name is Stepan Fedenko and at the time I was twelve years old and living with my Mama, Tato (Ukrainian for father), my brothers Volodymyr, Oleh, and Michael, along with my sister Maria. Unfortunately, Soviet so-called “Liberators” were storming through Ukraine from the East, led by the Red Army and the terrifying NKVD, which was Joseph Stalin’s Soviet secret police whose main motivation was political repression.
Under this Soviet rule, our lives had become increasingly more difficult and dangerous. Any freedom we had under the previous Polish rule was snatched from our grasp. What food could still be bought was ripped off our shelves. Furthermore, under previous Polish rule, we could at least speak and write and defend what was Ukrainian. We could protest the government as well as protect our culture and folk customs. But under the Soviets, speaking out was strictly prohibited and considered a betrayal of “the motherland.” Death or deportation was expected soon thereafter.
What kind of country is this? Certainly not Ukrainian. But I was convinced that it wasn’t Russian either, because Russia was never home for me.
As the Soviets tightened their grip, the Communist system gained more power. Union farms were created, and the stronger Ukrainian workers were ripped away from their homes. Russia took everything, including our fertile land, which was handed down from generation to generation. There was no compensation for the families. Fear and unprecedented terror spread through our villages, homes, and minds.
Trains nicknamed “Black Ravens” swooped in on city tracks carrying NKVD officers. Local farmers gave them this nickname, because, like ravens who kidnapped chickens, this NKVD kidnapped our people, entire families even. They mostly did it at night, all within about two hours, sometimes even in the rain or snow, corralling and exporting whoever they pleased. The rest of the village slept, laying just as vulnerable to a potential kidnapping the next week or even that same night. The kidnapped were taken to the dirty, unheated commodity cars of these “Black Ravens,” and like cattle they were transported deep into the distant ice-hell of Soviet Siberia. There they were imprisoned without trial and without true guilt and were forced to work for an alien nation.
And why? For what? Why threaten us? Why label us as “sinners,” just for being Ukrainian born? Who has the power to decide where they’re born? Weren’t these the same Russians fighting against the Germans who were doing the exact same to the Jews? How was this any different? What did the Jews do? Just as Ukrainians, they were simply born. Who did they hurt? Who did we hurt? Who invented this first such abuse? Who created such law?
And how many people perished on the road to Siberia? How many actually made it? Which outcome was better? Many were never seen from again. And many weren’t remembered either. What happened to these innocent people? This is what the Russians called the Ukrainian “liberation” from Poland?
This Ukrainian Soviet Republic looked simply like “Ukraine” to the outside world. But underneath that mask festered and ruled the cruel communist dictatorship: Stalin, his NKVD hit-men, along with Russian as well as Ukrainian traitors. This insane system, forced onto Galicia by these so-called “liberators,” led to the destruction of Ukraine’s children, language, culture, tradition, dignity, and to add to that, we were forced to praise these “liberators” as well.
So we weren’t only ordered to simply rip apart our own culture, but we were also forced to show gratitude to those that brought this unbearable pain upon us. They bullied us Ukrainians to live a lie, and to cry loudly of their Soviet Paradise… “I know none other than this country, where man he breathes so free!”
They warned us that even if we had a single thought of freedom, they would immediately label us as enemies of the “motherland” and deportation to distant Siberia would soon follow. Deported Ukrainians were then forced to build roads and pipelines… and for the benefit of who? The Soviets! And only those involved with this mess, us and these Soviets, knew any of this was happening. The rest of the world was blind.
In schools, young children were brainwashed and ordered to tattle on relatives who criticized the Communist regime or spoke of Ukrainian freedom. The Soviets hounded these children, beating into their brains ideas against religion and God, calling it the opium of the people. This was evil genius on the part of the Soviets – infiltrating the most vulnerable of Ukrainians leading to deep changes lasting generations instead of trying to convert their parents who knew better.
The worst was on Christmas, when the “liberation” authorities ordered us to go to school like it was any other day. They replaced Christmas with, well, nothing that meant anything to us – a “Grandpa Frost” and the “New Year.” Why celebrate a new year when there was no Christmas? This year wasn’t done yet! As a young boy, this change was a major disappointment. Who did Christmas hurt?
So I dragged my feet to school that not-so-Christmas day, head hung low, just a twelve year old with a terrible cold at that. But I had to. I didn’t want to raise any suspicion against my family.
These Soviets wanted our minds to read: “We are liberated!”
Which was so far from the truth.
What really scared me was the memory of a play I had seen before the war, depicting a Ukrainian village during the artificially-induced famine of the 1930s. Whole villages of people died of hunger while living on Ukrainian soil as fertile as any on great Mother Earth. Millions died in total. Food was taken from these starving villagers and either given to Soviets or simply thrown away. And the outside world didn’t hear our cries for help either, for Soviet propaganda filtered out any news of famine trying to leak its way out of Ukraine. I wanted no repeat of this here in Galicia. But we needed help. We couldn’t do this alone. When would the rest of the world hear our cries?
So this was our new life under the Soviet regime. The loss of our people – either those transported to Siberia or murdered in prisons or otherwise – spoke loudly to us Ukrainians. Even if the devil himself had taken over, or even pure evil itself, it wouldn’t be any worse than Russian Communism.
These putrid conditions brought us to June 1941, when German planes dropped bombs onto the Soviet-occupied town of Horodok. Transportation was immediately interrupted. The road to the city was covered with tanks and military machines. Also, in Lviv, in the underground cellar prison called Brygidki, Germans found hoards of innocent Ukrainians murdered by Soviets.
Thus, the Germans were gaining power and a change was in the works. We heard that they had sympathy towards our situation and wanted to be our new liberators. So we started asking ourselves, “Can these Germans help us out?”
Because we needed a break from Russian rule. We wouldn’t last otherwise. If our farmers worked harder, the Soviets just took more crop. And we didn’t have a stable enough or unifying collaborative force to fight behind. There was no joint movement. There was no communication. We couldn’t fight them off, because we couldn’t come together.
But we desperately wanted freedom.
So we thought maybe Russia and Germany would rip each other apart. Then Ukraine, minding its own business, could slip out from under broken rule and live free.
So in true Ukrainian spirit, which was “survive today, hope for tomorrow,” our nation’s leadership, without the consent of the Soviets or Nazis, declared independence within the initial week of World War II, on June 30, 1941.
“Survive today, hope for tomorrow.”
Ukrainian leadership then decided that it would be easier to fight alongside Germany versus the Soviets, because those Ukrainian soldiers enlisted in the Soviet’s Red Army would hopefully desert en masse when hearing of this all-in push for freedom, especially if the Germans would tolerate our independence in exchange for our cooperation. This could be a big shift in our favor.
We also picked Germany because Russia wanted our resources so badly. Russia’s options were either cold, desolate Siberia or the vast fertile plains and mild temperate of Ukraine.
“They have what we want, and we can take it.”
We heard nothing of the Germans wanting to tear our country apart like the Soviets did, so we really had no choice.
Unfortunately, us Ukrainians were alone in daring to believe in a free Ukraine. Germany immediately took a stance against our freedom, threatening our newly-independent state. These Germans were clear in their focus and a free Ukraine had nothing to do with it.
They ordered us to immediately withdraw our proclamation of independence. Otherwise, they’d incarcerate every Ukrainian leader. But the newly created Ukrainian government didn’t succumb to German threats. They held their ground.
But this plan fell through within a breath of Ukraine’s declared stance. Germans fulfilled their promise, and within a month, almost all members of the Ukrainian government were arrested, amongst them Yaroslav Stetsko and Stepan Bandera, two Ukrainian leaders the mere mention of whose names stirred excitement for freedom. They were all deported to concentration camps, deep into Germany. It was a crippling blow to our already disjointed leadership.
And just like that, Germany’s sympathy towards Ukraine, and their stance as these “new liberators,” had vanished. Those non-arrested members of the government then dove into one of Ukraine’s two Underground organizations with the understanding that Ukraine could no longer wait for the foreign aide that wasn’t coming and should best organize themselves and their own efforts to break free from this ugly oppression.
So how did I fit into all this?
As a young boy, the Underground made a great impression on me. I was more than ecstatic to read and re-read all of their literature. Their slogan, “Freedom of Nations and Freedom of People,” couldn’t have sounded any better in those dark times of war. I passed these books around to all of my most trusted friends, but none of them became as entrenched as I did.
Through Tato, I also got to connect with leaders of the Underground personally. I listened intently to their conversations as they spoke of plans to regain control of the country they loved so dearly.
The most gripping topic for me was always how the Second World War would end. Who’s going to win? Who takes control and why? What could put us on the side of victory? Interestingly, the Underground leaders, at a time when Germany had just seized Leningrad and was now approaching Moscow, felt that Germany would still lose. But they also maintained that the Soviets would collapse as well. And how could both happen? They somehow implicitly believed that our allies from the West would help Russia, but only to the point of destroying Germany.
They claimed that the war wouldn’t end when the German demon was slain. Instead, they believed that England and America, as well as the rest of the world, would finally be acquainted with and conscious of Russian Imperialists and their brutal prison system, Siberian concentration camps, and their hope that this terrifying form of communism would “save” all of Europe and beyond.
So the Underground hoped that this light on their lies would provide proof enough to overthrow the Soviet’s strong-hold on the lives of the helpless innocent. The Undergrounders figured that these Soviets wouldn’t have the Polish or Baltic support either, because both of those countries had previously been devastated by the German Ribbentrop and Russian Molotov. The Allies would then defeat them both!
This was the Underground’s hope, at least. A hope which manifested a grassroots plan of getting armed through stealing from Germans and getting involved in Black Market trading. Ukraine would give the Allies any little push it could, from our simple but passionate hands.
But the most important part of our plan, even more important than putting arms in our young warriors’ hands, was to inform and spread consciousness among the Ukrainian people, to let them know that the only fear worth holding onto was the fear of not being free. Nobody would drop freedom on our doorstep, and we needed to be ready when that sliver of opportunity arose.
In this great time of war and turmoil, the Underground members explained that this might just be the best opportunity in our entire history for freedom and independence.
So this brings us to the Spring of 1944. Russians and Germans were taking advantage of our weaknesses and storming through us, pillaging and destroying our villages.
And like cornered dogs, Ukrainian youths lashed out. Our fear of oppression became stronger than our fear of death. We were fed up with always being in third or fourth place of who actually owned our nation. It became a culture of nothing to lose, so the youth unhesitatingly sacrificed their normal lives and voluntarily went to train and take up arms, even joining the German army with the sole purpose of getting trained, stealing weapons, and preparing to betray at a moment’s notice. They were sick of being ruled.
We weren’t free, and there’s nothing we wanted more.
CHAPTER TWO – The Siege – April 25th, 1944:
This brings us to the Fall of 1944. I was a seventeen year old, 5’2″ electrical engineering student visiting my family for Easter. Our modest home sat nestled in Uherci, a village of 400 plots lying southwest of Lviv in Western Ukraine. Nightingales chirped and crows cawed from their perches in the oak trees by our home, my hardworking Tato (Ukrainian for father) held work as a blacksmith, and my loving Mama made sure our family went to church every Sunday. If only it were that simple.
Ukraine’s constant claw for freedom from the Soviets had been dragging on for generations, and the Germans too now pillaged what little we had left, an immutable reminder that our beloved Ukraine was not, and may never be, truly ours.
It was also time for my sister Maria and I to go back to school. The night before our first day, our younger brother Michael had trouble sleeping and complained all night, awaking early to shuffling outside our window. His job that morning was to wagon us to nearby Horodok, where we’d take the train to school in Lviv. He worried about us being late and made sure to keep his eyes on the slow-moving clock throughout the night.
When the morning came and Michael finally got up and went outside to check the weather, he burst back into our rooms, shook us and said, “The village is full of German troops! Woman and children are crying! They’re taking all the men!”
Maria and I, along with our brothers Oleh and Volodymyr, sprung out of our beds and scurried to the window to check for ourselves. Michael liked to joke around.
But this was no joke. Across the road, German troops were escorting our uncle out of his house. Meanwhile, Tato crept into our room and grabbed me.
“Shhh. Come with me,” he said, and I snuck out the door with him.
We hunched down behind the wooden fence in our front yard and watched German guards snatch villagemen from their homes and crying families, escorting them down the road. Every man was taken.
We scurried back into the house and awaited our turn, knowing that any chance of escape was suicide. Our family would never make it, with my little siblings and my mother. Tato and I would never leave them. That choice never faltered – we’d never separate.
I thought back to what Tato had said one day when we were working on our cellar and I had asked him about fleeing: “We stay to defend our land and the weak.”
But nobody showed up at our door – a miracle! The Germans were gone. We stared at each other in disbelief.
Did they make a mistake? Maybe they missed us?
Tato told Maria and I to keep getting ready for school, so we wouldn’t cause any unnecessary suspicion. We understood the need for normalcy in crisis, but then a thought hit Tato and he grabbed my arm.
“I almost forgot!” he said. “There’s a rifle hidden under the furnace. Stepan, hide it better, down in the gutter. Use whatever’s under there – ashes, kindling… hurry!”
I ran to the furnace, dropped to my knees and found the rifle wrapped in paper and tightly woven string. I got as deep underneath the furnace as I could and jammed the rifle down into the little gutter. I leveled the soil out over the rifle to conceal my work. I spread ashes and other small logs around, trying to make it look natural and normal and not like someone had just hidden a rifle.
Then Oleh, my ten-year-old brother, startled me: “What are you hiding?”
I didn’t want to scare him or let him see the rifle.
“Oleh,” I whispered, “Come here!” And he did, and I said, “Don’t tell anybody you saw me doing this. Don’t touch anything down here! If you listen to me ever, listen to me now. Ok?”
He ran back to Tato.
I put the last of the logs in place, like they were being set out to dry and went back into our living room where I found out that apparently my brother Michael had ran off.
Worry hit Tato’s face. “If the Germans do show, they’ll ask about him.”
When the Germans first came to power in our village, the authorities issued a law stating that each home needed an occupancy register, of which the list had to be confirmed by the village council. It was nailed to our front door. Michael was on that list. This was not good.
Where could you have gone? How do we explain your absence?!
And then it hit me – I’d been living in Lviv the last two years, and I wouldn’t be on the list.
“Tato! I’m not on the list,” I said. “If they come, I can be Michael. They’ll count the names. They’ll count us. We’ll be fine.” That settled his nerves a bit.
Maria and I finished getting ready for school. I’d never packed my bag so fast. Everything except our driver was in place.
I snuck back outside to see what was going on.
But it was a ghost town. Completely empty. No villagemen. No crying women and children. Where did they take everybody? Did they really forget about us? Or did they make a mistake?
Then I looked out the window past Sonia’s house, where just last night she had kissed me goodbye, and saw our grade-school’s headmaster, Krupa, walking out of the schoolhouse followed by twenty or so German officers dressed in long leather coats and military hats. I shot back behind the fence.
Why the school? And why so many officers for Krupa? He’s not working the Underground.
I crouched and crawled back into the house and told Tato what I saw. We all scurried to the window to see what came next. But Krupa wasn’t being led by the Germans like the other men were. He was leading them.
“They must have come for retribution… for the shooting,” Tato said as he sat back with a look of disbelief on his face. German officers were shot at a few days earlier outside our village during a mission that went poorly. I was a part of that mission.
Tato added, “Now let happen, the will of God.”
I wondered what kind of retribution they’d bring. This had never happened before. It could be anything.
Then Krupa and the guards stopped in front of… our house.
We froze. We couldn’t run. Fleeing could bring an even bigger German wrath than the one we were about to get.
Krupa walked into our yard followed by all twenty or so of these German officers. They immediately surrounded our house.
Terror enveloped our family. The Germans didn’t forget about us – we were their main target.
I’d heard countless stories like this from Underground meetings, but the thought of Germans surrounding our house never crossed my mind.
Maybe they were waiting for us to react after taking the other men. Maybe they thought we’d run. Either way now they had us surrounded.
The lead officer gave some direction and a few others searched our hedges. Another group approached a pile of bricks in our yard, which Tato had recently bought to build us a new home. The officers moved the house-load of bricks and tried digging with their iron shovels. But Tato put these bricks there for a reason – not because he was hiding anything, but because it was good, solid ground to put a house-load of bricks on.
After some time, they were convinced of the same and stopped their search. Someone must have told them that we were hiding weapons there.
Then a group of officers, led by a tall, pot-bellied, red-in-the-face German Commander, walked unannounced through our door. There was no knock or permission granted.
In front of the Nazis stood schoolmaster Krupa. He looked utterly confused and out of place. He had walked into our home plenty of times. He was always smiling, often joking with Tato, and he treated me well. His son and daughter went to school with me in Lviv, and we’d often help each other with our homework. We helped each other make friends too.
But at this moment, Krupa was different – distraught, pale, and his mannerisms and posture were that of an ashamed, feeble man.
He, with all confidence depleted, raised his head a bit and greeted us in a trembling voice. Krupa didn’t utter another word to us, turned back to the paunchy Commander and in German asked, “Can I leave?”
The German agreed and Krupa left silently from our home, probably returning to his own family. That would be the last time I would ever see schoolmaster Krupa.
“Line up. Against the wall,” one of the officers ordered us to do in German. “You too,” he said, pointing to my youngest brother Volodymyr, who at the time was only nine. He was sitting on the stovetop shaking, terrified. Poor Volodymyr. We were all shocked and didn’t move. Mama couldn’t hold back. She burst into tears.
“Line up!” shouted the officer, this time in Polish. He walked over to the house registry poster and read over the details. Please don’t ask. I really didn’t want to lie.
The officer counted us, confirming what he saw on the card. Six on the card, six in the house. Mama, Tato, Volodymyr, Oleh, Maria, and me for Michael. Maria has been studying in Lviv with me too, but she left a year later and the register hadn’t been updated yet. All seemed ok so far.
The Germans showed no initial suspicion, but I started to worry about where Michael was.
Are you in the barn?
He loved hiding out in the haystacks. I pictured the Germans searching the stacks with their long and sharp bayonets, stabbing a terrified Michael in the process. I couldn’t picture anywhere else he’d go. I felt sick.
We then heard shuffles and movements below us, in our cellar – the Germans were throwing about all our storage. My heart skipped as every wooden board clanked. Probably searching for weapons. Luckily, there was nothing down there.
But the red-faced German wasn’t satisfied with his raid. With every report of clean room after clean room, he rumbled and grumbled more and more angrily, becoming less and less human and more and more a snarling beast.
“Well then fine! I’ll do it myself!” he yelled.
It seemed like he wouldn’t rest until he found something. I thought of the rifle.
After tossing about some things, the red-faced German paused and his eyes found the pictures hanging up on our wall.
“Aaaahh,” he said, with a sort of evil satisfaction. For a long time he peered at these pictures, portraits of Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Father Markian Shashkevych and Symon Petliura. They were all patriotic symbols of Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Many of them were locked up, for their activities were stamped “illegal” by the Soviets or Germans.
This pot-bellied beast lingered longer in front of Simon Petliura’s picture. Petliura was the Head of the Ukrainian State from 1918-1920. He rose to power on ideals of rebellion and freedom from all those who oppressed Ukraine. He had also granted Jews more rights in Ukraine than any other European government had and was assassinated by a Ukrainian-born Jewish anarchist in 1926.
The red-faced German then unsheathed his long bayonet and cracked the frame’s glass face. Then he sliced through the middle of the picture.
He proudly said to himself, “Simon Petliura… bandit.” Then, as if that hadn’t satisfied him enough, he ordered Tato and I to separate from the rest of the family.
“The girl too?” one of his assistants said of Maria.
The Commander nodded a yes. “And search the house again – all of it! Every room, every crevice, every trunk of clothing! Documents, papers, books, notebooks! Everything!”
He stormed out of the house, leaving two of his remaining deputies. They whispered to each other and nodded in understanding.
“Get us some milk,” one said to Maria.
She gladly agreed, went out and milked the cow, and brought back two glasses. When she returned, she stood with Mama and my two brothers, instead of with Tato and me.
It was easy to see that if one of our two groups was in danger, it was Tato and mine. Neither of the Germans ordered Maria back in our group, and in the end, this probably saved her life.
We heard the paunchy Commander cursing his assistants because they couldn’t find a thing.
He ordered them to search a third time, but this time with incredible detail. They wanted to rationalize searching our home. They didn’t want to fail. They wanted to figure us out. He ordered one of his men to dig again under the bricks where no digging was actually possible.
Maybe they won’t find a thing. Maybe they’ll leave us alone. Please, just leave. Go away. You have no reason to be here.
We again heard soldiers tossing hay bales in the barn, combing it from head to toe, even more thorough than before. With each new order from the Commander, I became more worried.
I thought about the rifle under the furnace. I thought about wherever Michael could be. Because the Germans insisted so dearly on finding something suspicious, I figured that we were probably the most punished house in the village. They were setting an example for others. Someone must have ratted us out. But what they said, I didn’t know.
Then one of the officers told Oleh to crawl underneath the oven and remove all the boards and any chopped wood. My heart skipped a beat. Oleh knew that something was down there, but I didn’t tell him what it was. My family’s anxiety tightened.
With the officer watching closely, Oleh nervously got down and tossed about a few logs of firewood, but mostly he just re-arranged them back and forth, moving them side to side.
Yes Oleh! Good.
Unfortunately for Oleh, Mama had just baked bread that morning, so that heat plus his anxiety put him into a heavy sweat. He did not want to go any deeper. Luckily, the German who had been tracing Oleh’s every move, couldn’t bend down any longer and stood up, rubbing his lower back. Oleh finished searching around, and the German seemed satisfied. Oleh had even leveled out the ground better than I had, really making it look like nothing was down there. I figured we were in the clear.
But then the German gave Oleh his bayonet. “Keep poking around,” he said. Ah! Oleh will be just as surprised by this rifle as the German! Oleh did as he was told, poking about nimbly. What agony!
After a few minutes, the German ordered Oleh out from underneath that hellacious furnace heat. His face was covered in ashes, dirt, and sweat. As the German shined his flashlight underneath the furnace, Tato and I waited impatiently. Satisfied, the German ordered Oleh to toss the logs back underneath the stove, and we quietly let our breaths out. I quickly thanked God but then my head swiveled towards the other soldiers, who’d began searching our kitchen. Next to the kitchen window there hung a wooden shelf filled with bowls, plates, and glazed clay jugs, and on the end sat a “masnychka,” a small wooden churn in which Mama sometimes made butter.
Last time Tato went to the store, he bought a larger masnychka, so Mama wasn’t using this smaller one anymore. Seeing this little masnychka on the shelf sent shivers through my body. My legs became rubber and stuck to the floor. I could hardly move.
I had hidden a magazine for a revolver in that masnychka, which I had brought home from Lviv several weeks back. I had coaxed an Uherci-raised Ukrainian policeman named Yosef to sell it to me. In general, Lviv’s Police Force had ties to the Melnyk branch of the Underground movement [OUN-M], so most policemen would never sell weapons to a village boy like me. But most of Lviv’s Police Force wasn’t infatuated with my sister Maria like Yosef was. Seeing Ukraine’s freedom movement separated into chunks like this with no real central leadership was so frustrating, but Tato and I had to take what we could get however we could get it.
So Yosef sold me a gun and two magazines and I snuck them back on the train from Lviv to Horodok and then home and gave Tato one load and the revolver. I put the other load in the masnychka, thinking I’d give it to him when I got another gun.
And before the Germans barged in today, Tato and I Nazi-proofed every corner of our home. We even burned our copies of Underground literature. But I completely forgot about the bullets hidden in the masnychka!
Nobody else in the family knew about these bullets. Not even Tato. So we’re going down because of me? How did I forget? How could I be so stupid?
Peering at these Germans, who were carefully searching the shelf, bowl by bowl, my self-hate turned to fear. I knew that as soon as the Germans found the magazine, Tato would be berated for the location of the accompanying revolver.
“Where’s the gun!?”
“Where’d you get the bullets!?”
I couldn’t think of a good answer. I wanted all the blame. I worried that Tato would take all of my guilt. Tato would never let me take that fall.
I wanted so badly to talk to him, but I couldn’t. The guard was right next to us and ordered us not to talk. I racked my mind for how I could distract the Germans, but nothing came, so I did the only thing left I could do – pray.
Please God, don’t let them search the masnychka. Don’t let them search the masnychka.
One of the guards searched the last bowl before the masnychka.
And then, suddenly, something happened that I myself truly cannot explain. Perhaps it was the grace of God, grace for our family.
I heard a hysterical snort come from a German who had been outside searching our porch.
He cried out to the others, “Come quick and see what I’ve found!”
The German guard next to the masnychka turned and shouted, “What’s so funny over there?”
“Get over here and see for yourself!” he replied, still unable to control his shrieks.
To my amazement, the German left the masnychka and walked outside to see what his fellow soldier had found so funny. A moment later, they both walked back into the house with little bunny rabbits in their hands.
Michael had cherished playing with these rabbits in the stables, where their burrows were. The Germans must have ran them out of the barn, through their little tunnels, and into the porch wall.
These frightened rabbits, looking for safer ground, ended up landing in the soldiers’ hands and being softly caressed by the same German mitts that had just ransacked our home.
But thankfully, neither German returned to the masnychka. They just kept showing off rabbits to one another.
Next, the commander ordered a guard to review all the notes and books that I had brought home from school. He carefully peered over every page. Apparently he could read Ukrainian.
Sandwiched in the pages of the books, he found my little notes, addresses of friends from school, a few jokes, and lyrics to songs that I hadn’t yet learned by heart. The German seemed a little too curious shuffling through it all. He lingered on a page which I had written down the lyrics to a Ukrainian Underground Army song. The German then stood up from his chair, opened the window, and called the other officers inside. They came in and he translated my notes into German for them. The lyrics were all about rebellion and the freedom of our dear Ukraine.
One verse went like so:
The UPA is the armed force,
That re-baptizes its enemies. Judgement still comes
And the Ukrainian people will be free!
Another, like so:
I started singing them in my head, but I was too terrified to remember the melody. Singing was an incredibly important part of the Ukrainian culture. It brought people and voices together… but at that moment, with my notes, it felt more like it was about to tear us apart.
The Commander then called off the search and told the officer to bring him the notebook. Only the notebook. Apparently, they had found what they were looking for, as little as it was. My guilt, lost in the rifle and butter churner, had found itself now attached to my notebook.
My fault? Again? How could this be? I should have known that they could read Ukrainian!
At least with my notebook they could put all the blame on me, and not on anyone else in my family. Tato couldn’t take this one.
Mama also seemed to realize that this long of a search couldn’t end well. Her face hung heavy with anxiety. She knew the Germans would arrest Tato and me.
Mama paced through our home, as if searching for something, probably worrying about how she would fair alone with the family, how she could keep it running. There was no way to store food in our home long term, and already we were in dire need of money.
And because I planned on heading to school that morning, I was dressed in my best outfit and new boots that I had just picked up from the shoemaker. These were so-called “English boots,” made of real red leather. They were quite fashionable in our area, and I wanted to brag to my friends, especially to the girls.
Looking at Mama, I instantly felt regret in wearing these clothes and wanted to change. Mama needed to sell them back. She needed the money.
Mama read my mind and regretfully yet courageously asked me, “Could you change into something else, if the Germans wouldn’t mind?” It might have been the hardest thing she’d ever asked of me.
The Germans were busy, so I quickly changed back into some old clothes and then the Commander walked in, followed by several officers.
After a short conversation, the red-faced Commander ordered Tato and me out of the house. They said nothing to my sister Maria, who stood by and supported my tearful Mama. My youngest brother, Volodymyr, who was lying back on top of the stove, cried too. To shut him up, one German snapped his arm with a whip, immediately ceasing Vlad’s moans. I felt queasy.
I stood up to make sure Volodymyr was ok, but the same German who whipped him kicked my hip with his military boot and pushed me out the door.
Tato and I were escorted down the road by a pack of German soldiers. I pictured gallows and figured that both of us would be hanging by day’s end.
At that moment, as we walked by Sonia’s house, she slipped out her door and saw Tato and I surrounded by troops. She buried her face into her hands and immediately ran back inside. Would this be the last time I see you?
The guards led us to the field on the far end of the village, which was covered with German soldiers armed with machine guns ready to fire. The gallows I’d first imagined were thankfully not there, giving me hope that maybe these Germans wouldn’t punish anyone publicly.
Tato and I were led to all the other men sitting in long rows, densely packed, waiting for whatever the Germans might do to us. We were quickly separated, and before I could protest, I was stuck into a row of five and an officer walked along our flank and counted us.
I hope these Germans don’t randomly pick out hostages. They had done so recently in a nearby village. I distracted myself from this thought by looking for my brother Michael, who remained unseen.
Then I noticed that I was easily the youngest of the men. Loneliness crept in.
Not far from our field, a group of courageous women from the village gathered, worried about what these Germans might do to their husbands or sons. With tears in their eyes and babies in their arms, they tried getting closer but were blockaded by the German troops. Everyone waited in silence.
After the German officers congregated, the paunchy Commander, who headed the “audit” of our home, ordered his lead officer to explain why we were gathered here today.
His officer opened up a leather notebook and withdrew a sheet of paper. Then, in Ukrainian, he said, “If I call your name, line up before me.”
This wasn’t a gathering of random hostages. This was a premeditated arrest.
He read three names: “Michael Dyachok.” “Jakuba Hryhorij.” “Yosef Mazur.”
And then two more: “Ivan Fedenko.” “Stepan Fedenko.” My heart dropped.
The officer hid his notes and said, “During today’s search of your little village, we were very easy on you. Right now, we are only arresting these five. We’ve been informed that these people are engaged in unauthorized employment, and that their work is detrimental to the German Reich.”
My heart sank even further.
“We want to verify,” he said, “that these denunciations are true. This is our first order of business. And secondly, not far from here, in your very forest, Colonel Otto Linka and his secretary Kashuba were wounded. We still don’t know who shot them. Linka believes that they may have been deserting Germans, but we think that you five will tell us who did it.”
How much do they know?
“And when we uncover that these five are not guilty, we’ll promptly release them home. Let this be an example to you all. You must respect us Germans. No one here will tell us how and what to do. And, at this moment, there are no crimes attributed to your village, so today we’ll only arrest these five suspicious people,” he said.
Suspicious people? I knew that my work wasn’t in line with the Reich, but who told them? And what did they say?
“Let this be a warning for the future too. If another shooting happens or if we’re attacked by guerrillas in the forest, we’ll line up the rest of you and shoot you on the spot,” he said and then added, “Once again, if we see that these arrested are not guilty, then you’ll have them back soon. You’ll see.”
The irony dripped from his lips. They knew.
These words comforted the other villagemen and their attentive women. Many of them rejoiced getting back their relatives, initially expecting something terrible.
But there was something terrible. Tato and I got caught.
Most of the un-arrested villagers crept away, as if one wrong move might change their fate. The Germans ordered them out of the way, not to disrupt the traffic. A few of the villagers bravely hung around, standing at the side of the road, looking back at us with compassion. Many of them knew exactly why we were being arrested – we worked for the Underground.
Meanwhile, two military freight trucks covered in tarps drove up to the square. We five arrested were led to the one filled with waiting German soldiers. I found it impossible to move my heavy feet, hoping maybe roots could grow into the ground and I wouldn’t have to leave.
The guards escorted us into the truck and we sat down on the metal floor. The guards themselves sat up on benches, favorable perches to keep eyes on us suspicious people. The soldiers who participated in the raid went off to the other car.
Just then, about a dozen daring village women ran up to our truck to say their goodbyes, to grab our hands, to weep. They tried to comfort us, saying they’d pray for our quick release. Mama and Maria appeared, as well as some of our neighbors. The crying grew heavier as the fearful realization of the moment sunk into their hearts.
Some villagers promised to take care of our family. This made my heart a little lighter. Mama was strong, maybe too strong. She’d try to shoulder the burden of providing, so it was a sliver of good hope to hear that others would help.
The trucks jolted forward and the women ran after us, trying to get one more moment with their kin. Mama grabbed the tailgate of our truck. She begged in vain, “Release them! Release them or take me with you!”
The truck outran the other women and it was just Mama left sprinting, hands latched onto the tailgate. I couldn’t believe it. I knew she was strong, but not like this.
One guard then stood up and kicked Mama off the gate with his military boot and she tumbled into the middle of the road. The women behind her caught up and pulled her aside just as the second truck of the convoy barreled through, nearly running her over and adding more tragedy. I stared in disbelief. That final moment with my Mama burned into my memory. I would never forget it.
She once told me that she wanted my head to rest against her when she died. Would I ever get that chance?
I stared at the German who kicked her. I hated him.
Why did you have to kick her?
Was it not enough for you to take us away from her?
She would have fallen off sooner or later – why kick her off?!
Mama disappeared into the dust shuffled up by the second convoy. Little did I know that this would be the last time I’d ever see her in person. A devastated Tato sat silently, watching the German who kicked Mama as though he’d pounce in retribution at any moment.
“Tato…” I started to say but a German swiftly lined up his rifle right between my eyes and shouted, “No talking!”
I had never been on that end of a rifle before.
The convoy didn’t go far. It turned and arrived at the other end of our village at the castle of Count Nyezabitosky, which was now occupied by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces. Most of the soldiers got out of the trucks and we were ordered to stay put. It was probably lunch time.
They left us with two guards in the truck and two more patrolling the ground. They once again reiterated to us, “No talking!” They probably didn’t know Ukrainian and wanted to avoid us plotting against them.
After these four guards were relieved and the rest of the soldiers returned, they laid out on benches and I figured that they might at least let us use a toilet. But they didn’t.
Coming out of the castle last was the paunchy Commander. His face was somehow redder. I figured him exiting last was directly related to how much time he spent stuffing himself.
He joked loudly, and everyone laughed but us prisoners. He satisfyingly got into his small personal car, chauffeur waiting, and then he gave the signal and we drove further down the road. Behind the personal car drove two more cars, and then the two convoys, one with us and one with the soldiers who raided Uherci.
I became more and more disgusted looking at these arrogant Germans. They seemed to have eaten plenty enough… and drank enough too, for they were all loudly yelling amongst themselves.
You could do whatever you want, whether anyone liked it or not, couldn’t you?
They paid almost no attention to us. It’s like we weren’t even there.
I looked back down the road, through my arched tarpaulin window. This road led straight to Horodok so I figured that they were taking us to the prison there. For almost two years I walked this road to school and back, twice a day. I knew every ditch. If the weather was nice, it was a good forty five minutes, and there were snowy days when it took double that time.
And I used to complain about that cold! If I only knew then what today would bring… would I have complained? Now I was being driven… and I’m still complaining! Would I ever walk this road again? My mind sprung into action.
Could I flee? I know every one of these roads. The jump from the car isn’t too high, and I’m not that far from home.
But then I thought of Tato. What would happen to him? Or what if I got hurt running? Twist my ankle maybe? They’d catch me and have no use for me. I’d surely be executed.
We arrived in Horodok, passing by my old school on Skitnyk road, the Horodok market, and then kept moving further east. Staying in Horodok wouldn’t be too bad, because Mama could easily visit and bring us food, clothing, and anything else we needed. But we kept moving and moving and before I knew it those plans were spoiled and our transports were out past the city limits.
We weren’t being questioned in Horodok. We were headed northeast, towards Lviv, another 30 km further. At that moment I realized that they were taking us wherever they pleased, and I couldn’t change a thing.
Source and for further reading:
Separation – A Ukrainian WWII Survival Memoir