Oleg was watching the news. What he saw on his TV screen disturbed him greatly. Sometimes he was shaking and sometimes a tear or two rolled down his cheeks. He was near the end of his life and the present should not aggravate him that much. But he did care about his former homeland, the Ukraine.
What was unfolding there brought back bad memories and opened up old wounds, he thought had healed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. For the first time in a long time, his homeland had become an independent country.
And now this, he thought. First the Crimea and now the East of the Ukraine. Where will it all end, brother will fight brother. He was almost ninety-five. But the memories of the bad old days were still fresh. He grew up with his parents in the Western Ukraine but shortly after he was born his homeland was hit by the man-made famine, caused by the Bolshevik government confiscating all agricultural produce. They only survived, because of his father’s ability to outsmart the food inspectors. But the hatred of all Russian was inculcated in him from then on.
When Oleg was eighteen he was drafted into the Red Army. In December 1939, he was on the Karelian front fighting in the terrible Winter War. Perhaps, fighting was too big a word. It was more hiding from the Finnish who adapted to the snow and ice better than their Soviet enemies. Oleg and his comrades didn’t dare going outside unless it was unavoidable, like going to the latrine. Many of his comrades did not come back. Finnish sharpshooters had their rifles trained on the toilet door. It was a short war and he survived.
Less than a couple of years later, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Oleg and his unit were near the border and he was taken prisoner during the first week. He was not unhappy about it as he did not need to fight for the hated Soviet Union anymore. He thought, his people would welcome the Germans anyway.
The Germans found out quick smart that there were Ukrainians among the prisoners of war. They offered them work in Germany which was much better than starving to death in the prison camps.
Oleg wanted to survive and was sent to Hamburg to work as a shunter in the world’s largest shunting yard. He met people from other European countries working there. The yard master wasn’t a bad chap. As long as one did the job properly all was okay. He was a good and fair man.
One day, after the terrible air raid on Hamburg in 1943, Oleg was called into the office of the yardmaster. An officer of the German Luftwaffe was waiting in the yardmaster’s office.
“What now, do I have to go back to the POW camp?“ he wondered. The officer smiled at him and asked him how he would feel joining the Luftwaffe as a helper with an anti-aircraft unit. He reminded him that as a Ukrainian he would surely hate the Russians and their allies, the Western powers, who were helping the Russians to win the war. “And that, we don’t want to happen, do we?“ He asked with a sly look.
And so it happened. After a short training, he found himself on one of the Flak towers on top of the air raid bunker near the Berlin Zoo. There was no time to get bored. American bombers attacked during the day and British bombers during the night. They were housed in the confines of the bunker.
As Oleg was remembering all this, he was thinking, what a miracle it was that he survived at all. Towards the end of April 1945, the war entered its final stage as the Red Army was storming towards Berlin for the final showdown. Oleg’s unit ran out of ammunition at the flak tower and he was ordered to report to a new command centre in the city. The Red Army had entered the outer suburbs already and was pushing from all sides towards the city centre. How you get, in a chaotic, ruined city, to the place you have been ordered to? Public transport had come to a halt. The dreaded military police patrolled the city looking for soldiers who were AWOL or plain deserters. Corpses were hanging from lamp posts, people were queuing for some groceries and artillery projectiles were crossing the sky looking for a target. The smell of fire hung in the air.
For a Ukrainian it was a doubly dangerous place. Germans could take him for an infiltrator working behind the front line. Anyway, where was the front? It could be just around the corner. If the Red Army turned up they would shoot him instantly. Oleg was a traitor as far as they were concerned. After a short rest behind a burned out tram, he continued his odyssey. He made it to his destination. The headquarter was near the Reich Chancellery and when he arrived the non-commissioned officer, after checking his papers asked him, ”You are speaking Russian? General Krebs needs someone who can help him out. Good luck !”
Oleg was instructed that his job was to listen and observe what was being said at a meeting with the Russians. It was already dark when a convoy of several cars set off to somewhere unknown to him. They drove along the devastated Wilhelmstrasse towards Hallesches Tor. During a short stop, white flags were attached to the cars. Oleg was in a Kübelwagen at the rear. The big shots travelled in their Mercedes. At the Hallesches Tor Oleg could make out the silhouette of the elevated train he had used often when he travelled across the city to meet his Polish girlfriend, Irenka. Here, heavy fighting took place, Russian soldiers stopped their convoy of cars and after a short conversation, Russian Jeeps led them to their destination in Tempelhof. It was not a romantic setting. It was the final curtain in the destruction of the Third Reich. Explosions could be heard and flares went up, eliminating the dying city in its death throes. T 36 tanks were moving towards the centre. Berlin was a hell hole and Oleg could not believe that he was there. It was truly a surreal situation. He would have preferred to be with Irenka. The Polish woman, he had befriended while stationed in Berlin, worked for a German butcher and had often brought him some small goods. At they drove through the night he was wondering whether he would ever see her again?
When they arrived in a small side street, someone pushed a briefcase into his arms so he would look official. The talks went on for hours. Oleg learnt that Hitler had committed suicide the previous afternoon. The Russians acted like they knew. But he could overhear a phone conversation in which this important message was passed on to someone along the line. The Russians wanted the Germans to capitulate unconditionally, but General Krebs said, that wasn’t why he came. A truce, yes, but not more than that.
Next morning, on the first of May, they returned to the smouldering city centre but not before the Russians took photos, for posterity, of the Germans while they were waiting for their transport back.
After a quick meal of black bread and jam, he went back to the non-commissioned officer for further instructions. He told him. “Corporal, you are in luck, that comes from associating with the big guys. Krebs was happy with the information you supplied and as he is aware of your precarious position being Ukrainian, he has ordered to give you a travel pass out of this doomed city. ”He handed him a piece of paper and said, “Good luck and survive.”
The travel document directed him to Potsdam, but unknown to the Sergeant and Oleg Potsdam had fallen to the Red Army days before. He was on his own. A group of German soldiers, some from the Luftwaffe like him, were holed up in an once stately hotel. He joined them when they told him they were trying to break out and go to the West. They felt, that becoming prisoners of the Russians would do their health not any good. Oleg agreed. They decided, they would take a slight detour through the suburbs as on the main roads they would only meet with Russian tanks. Still, as soon as they hit the road they had to fight their way out. All the buildings were damaged and it was convenient to use them for cover.
In one of the doorways, they found a group of SS soldiers, real desperadoes, some of them from the Nordland Division, mostly Norwegian and Flemish. The soldiers of Oleg’s little group had told him they had been fighting the SS too but now that they met those members of the Nordland Division they agreed to combine forces. The chances of breaking out of the encirclement were enhanced with them. After a couple of engagements with the Russians, they were able to get through the front line.
Two days later, they reached the American front and they surrendered. That was the end of World War 2 for Oleg. He never found Irenka again and got married in Australia to a Ukrainian woman. Now he was a widower and he had never expected to worry about his homeland again. But there it was, Ukrainians were fighting Russians in the East of the Ukraine. It was painful for Oleg because, despite his animosity towards them, he regarded them as brothers. But then, brothers could be the worst of enemies.