Military history


Back into the Ukraine

On 20 September, Grossman and Troyanovsky set off southwards again, to Glukhov in the extreme north-eastern Ukraine, which they had passed through on their escape from Gomel.

Stalin’s refusal to face up to the danger of encirclement round Kiev meant that Guderian’s Second Panzer Group had linked up with Kleist’s First Panzer Group near Lokhvitsa. General Kirponos’s South-Western Front, consisting of the 5th, 21st, 26th and 37th Armies was cut off. Stalin’s old crony, Marshal Budenny escaped, as did Nikita Khrushchev and General Timoshenko. Some 15,000 troops managed to slip through the German cordon, but the remaining half-million were condemned to a terrible fate of starvation, disease and exposure in Wehrmacht prison camps.

Despite the military situation, most Ukrainian civilians were reluctant to be evacuated eastwards to the Volga region. Grossman himself, although born and brought up in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, saw these Ukrainian peasants almost as foreigners since he had never had any contact at all with rural life.

Ukrainians had suffered in the civil war which had raged back and forth across their lands, and above all in the terrible famines triggered by Stalin’s policy to suppress the rich peasants or kulaks, and enforce the collectivisation of farms. Accordingly, many Ukrainians were prepared to welcome German troops as liberators. Grossman would later discover that Ukrainian volunteer police had even played a significant role in rounding up Jews in Berdichev, including his mother and their friends, and assisted in their massacre.

Out in the fields. Wind, wind, wind. Cold. Nature is waiting for snow. Women, cold, in sackcloths. They are rebelling. They don’t want to leave this place and go to the Volga German Republic with their little children. Some have five or six children.

They raise their sickles. The sickles shine dully in the grey autumn light. Their eyes are crying. The next moment, the women laugh and swear, but then their anger and grief returns. They shout: ‘An old man, he’s got two sons, lieutenants. He hung himself yesterday. He didn’t want to go to the Volga German Republic. Germans will get us there, too. They’ll get us anywhere. We won’t leave, we’d rather die here. If any lousy snake comes to force us out of our homes, we’ll meet him with sickles.’

The next moment one says: ‘When you haven’t got a man, you can take a cat and purr with it all night long.’

‘Look at the sky. Cranes are flying south. And we, where shall we go? Comrades, please help us.’

Oh, women! These eyes of women in danger – alive, excited, angry, childish, and you can see murder in them. Women had carried rusks to their men in Kursk, which is two hundred kilometres away.

The secretary of the local Raikom [the district Party Committee]: ‘Come and visit me, my friends. I’ve got spirits and women who aren’t too old.’

Second night. A telephone rang. For a moment I thought it was for me. The Germans were thudding away. We lit a fire in the stove. The poignant heartache of somebody else’s stove. A sweet little girl with intelligent, dark eyes says softly: ‘You’re sitting in Daddy’s place.’ Girls. They are cursing Hitler, who’s taken away their boyfriends, their music, their dancing and singing.

Troops are moving in the darkness. A girl runs to look at them: ‘To search for my brother.’ She looks like a doll, with a round face, blue eyes and a doll’s lips. These lips say the following about a one-year-old girl who is crying: ‘It will be just as well if she dies. One mouth less.’

A wounded soldier was brought here last night. He was gasping for breath, and cried. Two women wept together with him all night long, they were cutting his bandages which were swollen with blood. He began to feel better. The men were afraid to take him to the hospital at night. He lay there until dawn came.

Edinolochniks [individual peasant farmers] are whitewashing their khatas [simple Ukrainian houses]. They look at us with a challenge in their eyes: ‘It’s Easter.’

The implication behind this strange remark in autumn was the hint that they were celebrating the arrival of the most joyful moment of the year. Some historians have suggested that the Germans, with black crosses on their vehicles, were seen as bringing Christian liberation to a population oppressed by Soviet atheism. Many Ukrainians did welcome the Germans with bread and salt, and many Ukrainian girls consorted cheerfully with German soldiers. It is hard to gauge the scale of this phenomenon in statistical terms, but it is significant that the Abwehr, the Germany Army intelligence department, recommended that an army of a million Ukrainians should be raised to fight the Red Army. This was firmly rejected by Hitler who was horrified at the suggestion of Slavs fighting in Wehrmacht uniform.

The village of Kamenka. A house owned by three women. They speak in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. They went to look at the captured Germans. One of them, wearing spectacles, is a painter. Another one is a student. He would get up, entertain a baby for a while and lie down again. An old woman was constantly asking: ‘Is it true that Germans believe in God?’ Apparently, there are many rumours about German [occupation] circulating in the village. ‘Starostas are cutting strips of land,’ and so forth.1

We spent the whole evening explaining to them what Germans really are. They listened, sighed, exchanged glances, but clearly did not express their secret thoughts. The old woman said quietly: ‘We’ve seen what’s been, we’ll see what comes.’

The head of the driver of a heavy tank had been torn off by a shell, and the tank came back driving itself because the dead driver was pressing the accelerator. The tank drove through the forest breaking trees and reached our village. The headless driver was still sitting in it.

During his time near Glukhov, Grossman learned about the 395th Rifle Regiment commanded by Major Babadzhanyan fighting desperately on a tiny piece of land on the west bank of the Kleven River. ‘Grossman decided to write about this heroic regiment,’ wrote Ortenberg, ‘and wanted to get across the river to join Babadzhanyan. The political department did not allow this, despite Grossman’s protests. When Grossman later enquired about the fate of the 395th Regiment, he was told that the regiment had fulfilled its task with valour, but suffered great losses, and its commander, Major Babadzhanyan, was among those killed. Grossman described this in The People Immortal leaving the commander’s name unchanged.’

Ukrainian women taking home the bodies of their menfolk.

Grossman also wrote of these events just after the war because Major Babadzhanyan became a symbol for him of the Red Army’s ability to surmount such a terrible disaster.

The first time that we, military correspondents, heard the name Babadzhanyan was in the Ukraine, during the hard days of September of 1941, near the town of Glukhov. Overripe, heavy wheat was standing in the fields. Fruit was falling from the trees, tomatoes were rotting in the vegetable gardens, cucumbers and juicy cabbage were wilting, unpicked corn ears were drying out on the tall stems. Clearings in the forest were covered by a patterned carpet, boletus mushrooms showed under the trees and in the grass.

Life for the people was terrible in that generous Ukrainian autumn. At night, the sky became red from dozens of distant fires, and a grey screen of smoke hung all along the horizon during the day. Women with children in their arms, old men, herds of sheep, cows and collective farm horses sinking in the dust were moving east on the country roads, by cart and on foot. Tractor drivers drove their machines which rattled deafeningly. Trains with factory equipment, engines and boilers went east day and night.

Thousands of German aircraft droned in the sky continually. The earth moaned under the steel caterpillars of German tracked vehicles. These steel caterpillars crawled through marshes and rivers, tortured the earth and crushed human bodies. German officers who had studied in academies led their fascist battalions and regiments eastwards, through smoke and dust.

Babadzhanyan first saw German infantry in the summer of 1941, when our troops surrendered Smolensk. One red-cheeked [German] officer, a dandy, who wanted to escape from the dust raised by thousands of boots and wheels, turned off the road. No one heard the muffled shot because of the noise of wheels, neighing of horses, heavy sniffing of vehicle engines. The officer fell into some bushes. A few minutes later, Babadzhanyan was holding in his hands the documents of the dead man. Among them was a new leather-bound notepad. On its first page, German phrases and their Russian translations were written: ‘You are a prisoner’; ‘Hands up’; ‘What is the name of this village?’; ‘How many kilometres to Moscow?’

Babadzhanyan looked at the grey, tired faces of his reconnaissance men, looked at the grey houses of the village, so defenceless and small, looked at the incessant flow of German troops, and suddenly, seized by pain, anger and anxiety, took a stump of red pencil from his pocket and wrote in big letters across a notepad page: ‘You’ll never see Moscow! The day will come when we will ask you: “How many kilometres to Berlin?”’

The situation in those days was so desperate then that everyone, Grossman included, was happy to believe almost any rumour about German problems and low morale. Most of these stories, particularly anything involving the SS and Gestapo forcing German soldiers to fight, were optimistic, to say the least.

Germans captured by the reserve 159th Battalion say that the mood affecting everyone is to surrender. Almost all the corpses of [German] soldiers and many junior officers were found to have our leaflets and newspapers on them. Five Soviet newspapers were found on an unteroffizier, the first one dated 27 July. Newspapers were found with a summary of results of the two-month period, German newspapers and ours. The figures were underlined with red pencil, for comparison.

An ersatz battalion was brought up to full strength with Gestapo and SS troops. They are distributed in reserve units.

During some mortar bursts in Novaya, Germans were throwing themselves into the pond. Dozens of men drowned, including an officer. Reconnaissance men report that terrible screams were heard.

Up to 1,500 [German] fatal casualties registered, all others were taken away by Germans. Reports about big field hospitals in the area of Kletnya, hospitals in which there are up to 4,000 wounded Germans. Germans do not take them away, there’s an influx of them.

Reconnaissance mission on the 11th. Six men led by Sergeant Nikolaev, and Red Army soldier Dedyulya – to get a ‘tongue’.2 Nikolaev learned from locals about vehicle movement. They organised an ambush in the forest by the road. They threw grenades at the last three motocyclists. Dedyulya killed two motocyclists and captured [a German soldier named] Alvin Gunt.

Grossman heard a joke about a German armoured vehicle abandoned by the roadside. A boy ‘with one cube’ [i.e. a second lieutenant] was sitting in it.

‘You will be fired at,’ [the lieutenant is warned].

‘But by whom?’ [he replies]. ‘The Germans will think it’s their vehicle, and our men will see it and run away.’ Sad humour.

The sky has become German. We’ve seen none of our aircraft for weeks.

This note was inside the improvised locket of Lieutenant Miroshnikov who was killed: ‘If someone is brave enough to remove the contents of this locket, could they send this to the following address . . . “My sons, I am in another world now. Join me here, but first you must take revenge on the enemy for my blood. Forward to victory, and you, friends, too, for our Motherland, for glorious Stalin’s deeds.”’

The brigade commissar’s story:

A supply officer of the second rank, who had recently escaped having been cut off behind enemy lines, all of a sudden shot the commissar and commander of his rifle regiment whom he had suspected of espionage. He took their belongings and money, and buried the bodies in a shed. This supply officer was shot in front of officers from the division. He was shot by the man who was the most senior in age, a colonel.

Grossman could not resist local details of human interest, even if they had nothing to do with the war.

An old woman. She has three mute sons. All three are hairdressers. ‘The oldest one is half a century old,’ [she said]. ‘They fight like hell and squabble like horses, they grab knives and fly at one another all the time.’

House painters or stonemasons, when they are angry with an employer, brick up into a wall an egg or a box with cockroaches (with some bran for them to eat). The egg stinks and the cockroaches rustle. This torments the owners.

During the last week of September, Grossman was present at the almost farcically inept interrogation of a captured Austrian motorcyclist. The intelligence officer failed to act upon their prisoner’s boast of hundreds of German tanks in the area. It was only later that Grossman realised that these must have been part of Guderian’s Second Panzer Group, redeploying after the Kiev encirclement for their next attack. Purely by luck, Grossman and Troyanovsky managed to keep ahead of Guderian’s tanks over the next couple of weeks, only just avoiding capture on several occasions. Grossman’s status as a war correspondent would not have saved him. He would almost certainly have been treated as a ‘Jewish commissar’ and shot.

In Ermakov’s group. Village of Pustogorod.3 Political department. A girl – a Jewish beauty who has managed to escape from the Germans – has bright, absolutely insane eyes.

A [Wehrmacht] motorcyclist is being interrogated at night in the house where the political department is stationed. He is Austrian, tall, good-looking. Everyone admires his long, soft, steel-coloured leather coat. Everyone is touching it, shaking their heads. This means: how on earth can one fight people who wear such a coat? Their aircraft must be as good as their leather coats. The interpreter is a Jew, barely literate. He is speaking in Yiddish. The Austrian is muttering in his language. They are both sweating from their desire to understand each other, but sweating seems to be the only result. The interrogation proceeds with difficulty. The Austrian, turning now and then to look at the door, is thumping his chest and recounting that he has seen a vast accumulation of Guderian’s tanks in this area, a huge number – ‘five hundred! Here, here, right near you.’ He shows how close they are with his hand.

‘What did he say?’ the intelligence officer asks impatiently. The interpreter shrugs his shoulders in an embarrassed way. ‘He saw some tanks, up to five hundred of them.’

‘Oh, to hell with him. He must tell us names of settlements through which his unit has driven from Germany to the front,’ says this big intelligence officer, studying his questionnaire. Oh, these highly qualified people!4

Night in a house of female teachers. An apartment of intellectuals: there are books that I used to read which evoke a lot of memories. The books of my childhood. And there are objects from my childhood, too: ashtrays made from seashells, candlelights, albums, wall clocks. A palm tree in a tub . . . During the night, Kolomeitsev and I were suddenly seized by an insane anxiety. We woke up as if we had been ordered to, dressed and went out into the yard. We listened in silence for a long time. The west was silent. The Germans are fifteen kilometres away from here.

Grossman then returned via Sevsk (120 kilometres south of Bryansk) on his way back to Orel.

Sevsk. We were told that a German armoured vehicle was here yesterday. Two officers got out, looked around and then drove off. And this place is supposed to be far behind the front line.

Grossman and Troyanovsky were still not fully aware of the danger. They drove on north towards Orel. Whenever they stopped, even just for a moment, civilians asked for news.

An old man asks: ‘Where are you retreating from?’

1 In tsarist times there were church starostas and village starostas, usually the richest and thus the most influential peasants. The Germans reintroduced the system to use them as local mayors. ‘Cutting strips of land’ meant dividing up the hated collective farms and putting fields back into private cultivation by individual families.

2 A ‘tongue’ was Red Army slang for an enemy soldier, usually a sentry or rations carrier, who was seized by a patrol for interrogation.

3 Pustogorod in the Oblast of Sumy is about fifty kilometres north-north-east of Glukhov.

4 Establishing the exact path of German units from the Soviet frontier was one of the highest priorities of Soviet prisoner interrogations. This was to establish which Wehrmacht units to connect to which massacres. The information obtained played a large part in the post-war trials of German generals.

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