The events of World War II are visible beyond the thickness of time. In addition, there is an increasing variety of speculations around this tragic topic. Recently, unhealthy nervousness was growing both on the eve and during the celebration of the Victory Day. In politicized carnivals, on the rumble of salutes and the ringing of Jubilee medals, behind the Red Banner twists of the “frivolity” that penetrates in Ukraine from Mykhailivsky steading, unfortunately, any comprehension of this tragic, multidimensional phenomenon is lost. By the thunder and pathos, human destinies are lost too. Namely, in them, in destinies, the most real experience of a large-scale war in the history of mankind is focused. Today – a conversation with a former prisoner of German camps, the poet Mykola Petrenko.
How did the war outbreak for you?
The war for me generally started upside down. I was a student at the technical college of political education in Cherkasy, I was not yet 16 years old. On the first day of the war, the city secretary of Komsomol came to us. And when the meeting ended, at which we condemned the attack on Germany, he suddenly submits a proposal: all the present guys were voluntarily invited to the front. Who agreed? Everybody voted for it. They formed a student platoon with us, about 40 people.
That is, there was a patriotic impulse among young people, among ordinary people, wasn’t it?
Not really. The suggestion of the secretary was unexpected for us. And we did not really want to go there, to tell the truth. But they formed this platoon, they propped it to the destroyer battalion, and we must defend the bridge across the Dnipro. There were given 3 rifles for 40 people, with 15 rounds of ammo, and for a couple of months, we were on duty there. When the front approached, we were literally abandoned, and we fled.
What was the attitude towards the enemy: hatred, rejection, indifference?
You see, now Ukraine is a new country, it is 27 years. And the Soviet government was not even then 25, and people remembered what they had experienced: repressions of rich people, hunger and deprivation, and oppression… Because of what so many people have surrendered. If Hitler thought then and formed a five-million army with Ukrainians, then for 2 months there would be no Moscow and everything else… That’s it. People did not want to fight and fled.
Does this concern the Ukrainians or also representatives of other peoples of the USSR?
Almost all. A little later, in 1942-1943, the Russian Liberation Army of Vlasov was created. There were almost a million people there. Various legions – Caucasian, Mohammedan. In the army, everyone retreated, all fled… During the first couple of months of the war, 3 million prisoners – it’s really up to the throat! The Germans did not know what to do with them. I tell you if they had approached this in a different way… That’s it. I reached home, Lokhvytsya of Poltava region, and in the year of occupation I was there. And then somehow got into the German raid, as if I was writing clandestine poems. They took me and brought me to Lviv, to the Yaniv concentration camp.
How did you live there?
Did not you hear how it was in concentration camps? It was bad. Basically: always hungry. The diet was as follows: there was no breakfast, only artificial tea or ersatz-coffee was given. Lunch was a soup, 300 grams of bread and 20 grams of margarine. Supper was a soup, but every other day, 3 times a week. Hunger was the main torture in German concentration camps. Although they beat, of course. In late November 1942, I was pushed into the train and brought to Germany, in Buchenwald from Yaniv. I had not even heard that name before. They had already beaten much more – with whips, rubber sticks – soon I had already paid no attention to that. They gave a 2-kilogram “bread” for 7 people, a half-baked surrogate, and a little concoction. And if the norm was not fulfilled – to the penalty barrack. But I was staying there for a short time – I was lucky and was transferred to Stockbah, a branch of Buchenwald. This camp served the metallurgical plant. There, they broke down too, but a little less. And one more thing saved me – I worked as an assistant at the master Albert Lesing, and he brought some bread and gave it to us. And alternately: on that day for one person, in the other – the second, there were so many of us…
That is, there were also different Germans?
Of course. This Lesing was a former communist, lived in Switzerland. But the Nazis found him and put before a choice: either he would give up his views, or they would destroy the family that lived in Germany. Well, he renounced the communist ideas, returned to the Fatherland, began to work at the factory. But he helped the prisoners. There was still such a woman, Gaby Strauss, constantly walking in black, in mourning, because her sons were killed somewhere on the eastern front. She also brought us something every day – some potatoes, some bread. Subsequently, I wrote about her a poem “Woman in Black”.
Were you hoping for a release – the “reds”, or “ours”, or allies would have come?
We were waiting, and were trying to do something ourselves, but where would you go? We escaped once, at the end of 1942, but it was stupid. Three days we probed, and we were caught, shook well and turned back. To escape from the camp is one thing, but what’s next?
The Americans released us. On May 11, 1945, we noticed that the camp authorities had disappeared somewhere. And then we saw three tanks that are coming to us. Well, it was like from hell to get to paradise… They began to hug, to fraternize, to search in the camp of countrymen. Everyone was eager to go home. We were so eager to go home, we thought that there would never be a war, the world would become wiser, people would become more polite. And we immediately go to the filtration camp to check “Why did not you burn with the tank?”, “Why did not you shoot yourself?”, “What did you work for the Germans, why did not you sabotage?”, and so on.
Did you write poems in the camp?
Of course. Some were dispersed in other camps, among Ukrainians. I gave some to the Polish girl Lyuda, with whom I became friends after the liberation. She was from Kremenets, understood everything in Ukrainian. Young, alive – we must love, live. But the parents of Lyuda were against that young love, they lived in a family Polish barracks. They said that the girl is underage, and “your Stalin” forbade Soviet people to marry foreigners. She saved ten of my poems.
Why do you think so?
She found me. It’s all for a long time to tell, but in the 2000s a letter came from Lyudmyla Zelinska-Khoinska. “Dear Kolya!… Do you remember the girl, who worked in the camp kitchen, Lyuda? Today she already has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren… I was taken out by Americans together with my family for two months to rest in the mountains. Then we returned to Poland to reunited land. I am sending you photocopies of your poems. I protect them and read them often. Then the memories come back – good and bad. Because this is life…”
She asked me to come, but I did not want to. Because… I remember her fragile, beautiful, that I could carry on my hands, and now we are already old. It’s not the same. And I have not left Lviv for 5-6 years.
Do you remember those verses?
I remember a few. By the way, for the first time I was pulled into the world as a poet in the camp of Stockbakh. I read poems at the event about the end of the war: “Comrades, the time is approaching, when we leave foreign lands, / Where younger years of our lives sadly passed” (in Russian). I wrote in Ukrainian, but I made an exception for the event so that most could understand. By the way, Master Lesing, once seeing that I write poetry, gave me a good notebook. And with that notebook I went through my whole life. I still have it, only shreds from it, but it has survived.
Did you go to Siberia, and to Kamchatka with it? By the way, how did you get there?
After the liberation, I got into the filtration camp in Lviv – ironically at the place of the Yaniv concentration camp. Well, the Stalinist rule “who was in captivity, in the occupation – is enemy” was in effect. The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs of the USSR interrogated us all, saying: “Why did you betray your Motherland?” They sent me to Donbas, to the mines, where, at least, they fed more or less, despite hard labor. Two years later I fell ill, was sent to Siberia, and then to Kamchatka. It was not the camps, but the labor army, it was even relatively well there, they even paid money. Just a wilderness. And this – already not a year has passed since the war, but three – and you are without people, without girls, and still young. But they did not persecute. You work and work.
What is your attitude to the current war?
I had a thought for the rest of my life that war was a stupid and insane thing. I’m a pacifist, you can say that. And I do not believe in any of our victorious offensive, which may be now. Because if we start it – the whole world will turn away from us, and this imperial invasion will crush us. We must find ways with the world. We ourselves cannot cope. The fact that we are standing at the front, defending ourselves – well, such a war is stupid. It can stretch for 100 years. I believe that the world will fix our business.
What is the perception of the past war and the current one in the society – can you draw any parallels?
Of course it is possible. It is very active rejection of the invader, now the Moscow Empire. It is very active, and, as typical, this applies not only to Galicia or Western Ukraine. It, with various nuances, is inherent in all regions of Ukraine. Again, also like a critical attitude towards our current Government.
Were the authorities perceived critically during the Second World War?
I could not analyze so well then. But from a distance, you look around and see how it was. And it was so, that they did not really want to fight. Especially at the beginning of the war. And they did not rush into enemy tanks, and there was not much to break them with. The statistics show that the army actually threw down its arms and surrendered – well, almost all.
Last thing. What does May 9 mean for you – a day of parades and cheerful marches, or a time for sorrow, to honor the memory of millions of victims?
Memorial Day, yes. But still the Victory Day, whatever. Victory over the enemy – because it was the enemy. The opportunity to pay tribute to all those, who died, who fought. And not only to ours but to all participants – to the same Americans, who, for example, released us from the camp.
Interviewed by Pavlo Volvach
Photo: Mykola Tys