fragment #21 distance

War put great distances between loved ones.

In a short telegram in June 1943, one of the partisan leaders – Andreev – inquired after the well-being and whereabouts of his wife and daughters.

Salogor, the head of the Moldavian Communist Party, wrote back with an address in Moscow and said they were all well.

Not to know where your loved ones were.

Not to know how they were.

These were the commonplace daily experiences of millions of people in WW2.

Separated from all they held dear.

But it was not just distance that separated them, for when (or if) they were reunited, they brought back with them their experiences of their war.

And some things cannot be shared, should not be shared.

Things you had done. Things you had seen. Things you had heard.

The cries of the dying. The begging for mercy. The stench of burning flesh.

How do you talk about that?

And so even after the fighting stopped and you were physically reunited with your family and friends and acquaintances, there was still distance between you. This was one of the ways the war continued to exert itself on the minds and memories and emotions of those who experienced it.

And this was also why the bonds between those who fought remained so strong. For although after the war they were often separated by great physical distances, they remained emotionally and spiritually proximate, united in their shared experiences of comradeship and tragedy and dark humour and loss.

And it was a closeness that needed no words. Catherine Merridale in her book Ivan’s War, writes that on the annual commemoration of WW2 in Russia, the Red Army veterans stand in silence and weep.

Despite the separation of time and space, the pain of those days cannot be erased.

fragment #20 shoes

In 1943, in  rural Ukraine, some things which were really quite ordinary and mundane suddenly became very valuable.

Their worth sky rocketed because people did not have them and they needed them.

Clothes. Shoes.

Shoes were vital to the partisans. Marching long-distances in the cold and the frost and the snow and the mud and the heat wore out shoes really quickly.

But the partisans needed them to function. And desperation created raiding-parties whose sole aim was to garner supplies: shoes, clothes, food.

And raiding-parties meant theft. Stealing. Looting.

And killing.

My need is greater than yours. Give me what I need. I need shoes. You have shoes. After I kill you, I take your shoes.

And what if they don’t fit? Do you keep killing till you find a good fit?

And when you are marching, do you look down and think about the person who used to walk in them, who is no more?

War changes things.

Brings some things into sharper focus.

Makes you reconsider what you hold dear.

Makes you question what you believe.

Makes you doubt what you know.

Makes you uncertain of who you really are, deep down.

I mean, when the situation is truly desperate, what lengths would you be prepared to go to? How far would you go: to defend your family? Protect your children? Preserve your home? Avenge the killing of your parents? To acquire a pair of shoes?

And is that the real you? Does the desperate situation or the changed context reveal who you really are, deep down, rather than the face we present to the world?

Beneath the thin veneer of respectability aren’t we all capable of anything if the situation is desperate enough?

And I think we all know the answer to that question, don’t we?

fragment #19 repeat

Life in wartime Ukraine was deeply unpredictable, uncertain, anxiety-inducing.

Constant concerns over food security. Would they have enough to eat? Would someone seize their food?

Would the German soldiers come demanding food? Demanding workers? Burning homes?

Would the partisans come demanding food or shoes or medical assistance?

Each day truly had enough trouble of its own to stop you worrying about tomorrow.

Except one thing was utterly, terribly brutally, predictable.

Violence.

It came in cycles. Repeated cycles. Violence spiraling out of control.

Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.

The Germans went into the villages to demand food.

The villagers hid the food.

The Germans beat the villagers, set fire to their homes, stole cattle.

The villagers ran to the partisans in the forest. The partisans ambushed the Germans. De-railed the trains. Laid mines on the roads the Germans used.

German punitive battalions cleared the mines by using the villagers to walk down the roads.

So the partisans would lay more mines. But why would they do that, knowing that more villagers would die?

Life was cheap you see. German atrocities were the greatest recruitment tool the partisans had. So what if more villagers died in the process? What counts is who wins, right? Not what happens along the way. Right?

So the Germans would send more villagers down more mined roads and fields.

And so on. and so on. and so on.

Each death a catastrophic rip at the heart of all that is good in the world.

Each death an eternal, unfathomable tragedy.

Each death a unique life snuffed out.

Each death provoking anguish, despair. And the desire for revenge.

Make them pay. Blood for blood. Life for life.

So the cycle was repeated. In village upon village upon village.

Death. Despair. Revenge.

Death. Despair. Revenge.

A frenzy of killing.

And still we seem to think that violence can stop violence.

Have we learnt nothing?

fragment #18 sing

Why do humans sing?

And what does singing tell us about the people who sing?

The partisans sang in the evenings when they were in their camps, around fires, in the forest.

They were away from home. Separated from their friends and families. Living conditions were spartan. Food supplies were precarious at times. They were surrounded by danger – spies, patrols, air attack, mines, disease, informers, Germans, Romanians, Hungarians, Ukrainian nationalists – and full of fear. Some of them were mourning the loss of their loved ones. They had seen atrocities. Heard stories of atrocities. And some of them had killed and beaten and wounded other human beings too.

Life was lived day-to-day. There was no other way to live. You had no idea what tomorrow would bring. No idea what you would see. No idea what you would do. Will I die tomorrow?

And you had no idea when the war would end. None.

So, in the evenings, in the face of uncertainty and anxiety and loss and fear, and surrounded by comrades and fellow-fighters, they sang their partisan songs.

They sang of friendship, And hatred. And they sang of their country and they sang of revenge.

They sang to comfort each other.

They sang to encourage each other.

They sang to remember and they sang to forget.

They sang with each other and for each other and for themselves.

And in their singing they heard their voices blend with the voices of others, and so they began to lose themselves in something bigger. And as they lost themselves, they gained something greater than their loss: a moment of transcendence. A moment in which they felt fully alive, a pure expression of life in all its fullness.

They joined with the people around them but they also joined with all the others who were singing that evening across the USSR, and all the others who had sung before them and all the others who would sing after them in the face of an unknown, uncertain future and a painful violent present.

It’s what humans do.

In the face of trial, adversity, fire, storm and flood.

We join together.

And we sing.

fragment #17 remember

Revenge.

A huge part of the cycle of violence in 1943 was fueled by revenge.

And this revenge was stoked by the painful, raw, real memories of what had been done to their relatives, their families, their friends, their villages, their comrades.

Grigorii Los’, who lost his children and his wife to the Nazi occupiers.

Nikolai Lupkii, whose mother was tortured and killed.

Karp Stolyarchuk whose wife died at the hands of the German punitive battalions.

Precious memories. In our remembering we feel their closeness, sense their proximity. They remain alive to us, even in their death. And this re-membering reignites the pain, heightens the loss. We want them back. We long for their return. We ache inside, and nothing can dull the pain.

Painful memories. All those key moments in their lives they had shared. All those key moments they would never experience together. As they remembered their loved ones, they must have felt the anguish, the despair, the loss. The loss of love, intimacy. And the loss of a future together.

And in their pain, they just wanted to lash out, destroy the destroyer, kill the killer.

 

Take the life of those who took their loved ones.

 

 

fragment #16 lines

Lines have unintended – and sometimes deadly – consequences.

When you draw lines on a map, you divide people up and create “them” and “us”scenarios.

Then these lines form barriers between you and other people. They shape our thinking, mould our attitudes, affect our behaviour, begin to have real-life consequences for real human beings.

So it was in wartime Western Ukraine. This was an area which was strongly nationalistic. The wartime Ukrainian nationalist movement had a great deal of support here from the local population. They were fighting for an independent Ukraine, which meant at various times fighting the Germans and/or the Soviets.

There was no room for “others” in this Ukrainian nationalist future. This meant “removing” those who did not fit. Removing meant “ethnic cleansing”. This meant death and massacres. And it was the local Polish people who bore the brunt.

So they drew lines in every village. And they drew lines in marriages too.

Of all the ways that the Ukrainian nationalists drew these dividing lines within communities, perhaps the most brutal were these lines within a marriage and within a family.

Nationalist leaders urged Ukrainian husbands to murder their Polish wives.

Nationalist leaders urged Ukrainian fathers to murder their dual heritage children.

Not all of them did. Some refused, protected, hid and helped.

But many did.

Lines.

 

fragment #15 hands

Human hands were very busy in wartime Ukraine.

Their uses serve as a reminder of the enormous capacity of human beings for both good and evil.

We see this dichotomy starkly.

Villagers “handed over” food and water and fresh vegetables and repaired shoes and warm clothes to partisan fighters.

Partisans “handed over” leaflets and letters to villagers, informing them of the progress of the war.

Collaborators and informers were also “handed over”: for torture, beatings, imprisonment and worse.

Hands which held human beings close in moments of affection and intimacy and tenderness also squeezed triggers and gouged eyes.

Hands wrote love letters and death sentences.

German troops “handed out” ultimatums. Set things alight. Pushed people onto trains. Shoved people into pits. Forced people into camps..

And everyone laid mines.

And how were mines cleared from roads and fields?

Human hands pushed lines of villagers or lines of collaborators down the roads or across the fields until the mines had been cleared.

Human hands but so much inhumanity.

fragment #14 follow

The struggle of the partisans was not just against the occupying German and Roamnian forces, and also the Ukrainian nationalists.

They also struggled with the local population.

The struggle with the locals was not a military struggle. It was a moral, emotional, practical struggle for support.

Will you support us? Will you provide us with food? Will you shelter us? Will you give us medical aid?

Will you come and fight for us. Will you come and kill for us. Will you come and die for us.

Yuri Timoshchuk was a recruiter for the partisans. He went into the villages to talk to the young, the old, the families. He needed to broaden support for the struggle.

He needed eyes and ears and hands and feet. He needed people to follow him back to the camp. He needed people to follow the Germans.

It was a momentous decision though. Once you chose to follow, you chose to risk. Risk your life. Risk your family. Risk the village.

Once you chose to follow, you started on a road which would lead to death and killing and revenge and reprisals. Torture. You were implicated. You were involved.

But what if you refused the request of Timoshchuk? What did that make you? A collaborator with the occupiers? A sympathiser? The enemy of your people? Your village?

An encounter with one man would suddenly mean a whole series of stark choices and decisions.

When Yuri Timoshchuk walked into your village, your life would never be the same again.

fragment #13 experience

Irina Kalizhinskaya had seen a lot in her 55 years on earth.

Regimes had come and gone. Revolutions. War. Famine. New machinery. She had experienced a lot of the extraordinary things of life, as well as the ordinary joys, pains, struggles and heartaches.

When the soldiers came it must have seemed like another unwelcome intrusion – violent and savage – into her life as a worker in a porcelain factory.

She must have hoped for some years of calm, normality. Hoped that this would not last long. Hoped that she could get through it unscathed.

Then, the partisans came knocking and demanded her assistance.

She was another one who was less likely to come under suspicion because of who she was – older, female – and so more likely to be recruited.

The trouble is that the more the partisans used the young and the old, the more they came under suspicion. They were dragged into the war. Recruited for the cause. And now everyone is a suspect. Anyone might be working for the partisans. Open season for reprisals. Life is suddenly very dangerous indeed.

Assisting the partisans meant new experiences. Unwelcome experiences.

It started innocuously. Delivering leaflets. Then helping to distribute newspapers.Passing on messages.

But it always escalates. The demands always increase. Observe the movements of the enemy. Pass on information. Smuggle ammunition.

And then another new experience.

Capture. Beating. Torture. Imprisonment.

The partisans found someone else.

But Irina was lost.

fragment #12 share

What does sharing your lives with others look like?

In the conditions of wartime Ukraine, sharing meant everything. You became dependent upon others for the everyday things of life, as well as for the continuation of your biological existence.

Your life was in the hands of others.

And in the villages and in the forests they gave to each other and provided for each other. The villagers brought food and clothing to the partisans. They mended shoes and repaired clothes. They helped with the wounded and the sick. They had very little. Yet they continued to give. They lived openhandedly, generously, lovingly, sacrificially.

And they did this knowing that this placed their own lives at risk, and the lives of their families and the village as a whole.

For the partisans they had to leave their own families and live in close proximity with others, in cramped, dirty makeshift shelters in the forest. The cold was a constant companion in winter. Living close to other people on a daily basis can be fraught.

But it also breeds camaraderie and comradeship and the transcendent sense of losing yourself in something bigger than you.

Shared lives in this context meant deliberately entangling your life, your possessions, your food, your clothes with others.

Shared lives meant giving up your comfort, your needs, your preferences, your security for others.

Shared lives were frustrating, annoying, exhausting, tiresome, fraught.

Shared lives meant relying on others.

Shared lives meant trusting others. And trust was a huge thing in the forests in 1943. Could you trust those around you? What if they were a spy?

And it also meant trusting in something bigger, in the bigger story that hope would prevail amidst the bitter struggle.

Shared lives helped them live hopefully, even when they lived under a dark shadow.