Oleg’s Story

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.

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Thoughts to the 1st of September 1939

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.

One would have to be pretty old to remember that day in the summer of 1939.

I’m this old and remember this particular day and what made it important. My dad told us, that there was a war on and the government ordered all windows to be blacked out so an incoming enemy air plane was not able to see and recognise anything.

Dad wanted to put some old wall paper over the glass of the windows and used some drawing pins to stick the paper to the window frames. He soon ran out of them. He sent me, his four year old son, to the shop to buy some more drawing pins, I was not surprised for I had done some errands before. I sort of remember buying ice creams and toffee lollies on my own.

On the way back the air raid siren started howling. Dad told the family there was nothing to worry about, it was only a  drill. Long after the war I learnt that the air defence made a mistake and mistook a German plane for a Polish one.

On the day we children did not take the news of war in any way seriously. I have no idea how my parents felt. Much later I learnt that dad was a communist who hated Hitler intensely.  Still, in January 1940, he joined the Army. He returned after the war in May 1946 after having been a POW.

For me exciting times were ahead. But as a little child I would not have known anything about the reasons for that war. During the next five and a half years, slowly the excitement turned into horror and it all ended in May 1945 with the unconditional surrender of the military forces of the German Reich.

Where are we now seventy five years later? The world is in turmoil. Historians tell us, it is the most peaceful time in all of history. What we are doing is concentrating on one or two events and we think it is the big one.  Well, I know history too and I can see what the Western powers are up to.  We, the public, see only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. We know nothing of what the big powers are really  playing at. What we hear and read is only propaganda. Lies upon lies are heaped onto a mountain of misinformation and before we know it, we have a big war in which young men are being  sacrificed and the women of the world are crying.

In Eastern Europe, at the  border between the Ukraine and Russia, storm clouds are forming. The enlargement of the EU and the encroachment of NATO towards the Russian borders is seen by the Russians as an attack on their national and cultural identity. The interest of the Russians in the affairs of Ukraine is not territorial but cultural and deeply emotional. Their feelings about “Mother Russia” is bordering on the religious. In Czarist times they called it “Holy Mother Russia”. I dare say, no other people on Earth feel so deeply about their country.

“The modern peoples of Belarus,Ukraine, and Russia all claim Kievan Rus’ as their cultural inheritance.” this is a quote from the Wikipedia about the country, Kievan Rus’. Now Russia, feeling stronger than at any time since 1990, feels it has to resist the encroachment by the West. The proposed association of the Ukraine with the European Union was the last straw.  If the West does not grasp this fact it is sliding into a confrontation of unimaginable consequences.

Today, at this important anniversary, we are closer to WW III than at any time since the end of the Cold War and we should be mindful of what Albert Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

 

Let that be a warning to us all.

 

 

Pride comes before the Fall !

2-Samuel-20

 

When I read a news paper or see the TV news nowadays, I get the feeling, we live at the the edge of something big.  We live at the edge of a political and historical cataclysm. Whether we go over the edge will depend on cool heads and people who’s thinking is not dictated by pride.

 

And it is our (false) PRIDE, I believe,  that lead us to it. It happened that they were discussing “pride” last night on our ABC in the series “Jennifer Byrne Presents“. We all think our country is the best, our system is the best, our God is the best and our weapons (read penises) are the best.  The implications here are “male pride” and women and children have to suffer for it.

No wonder we have come to the juncture that is our contemporary world. A hospital, in Gaza, is shelled or a passenger plane (MH 17) is shot down with no regard to the lives of people and a possible later historical outcome. One hundred years ago a series of shots rang out at Sarajevo that changed the world for ever. It was pure Serbian pride that lead that young man to his deadly deed. And it was pure Austrian pride that  made Franz Ferdinand parade in that city.

 

The re-emergence of hurt German pride after WW I  lead to WW II.

 

Whoever shot down MH 17 did it out of pride. We can do it, they thought and to hell with everybody else. We in the West like pointing at Russia and Putin (do you notice that the letters “Ras” are missing in front of Putin?) and claim  they are to blame. I think Putin is smarter than this. While not running away from conflict  with the West, he nevertheless is not looking for it. I’m  sure, when he heard of the downing of MH 17 he was storming in a big rage through the Kremlin. He himself is full of pride and that leads him into strife because he does not think what is good for all, but what looks good for him. And right now he is thinking how he could use the situation to his advantage.

 

We  in the West are not smart enough to consider a way out for people whose false pride  lead them into trouble . We could learn something from a lion tamer who always gives a dangerous animal a way out: jump on another seat or take another position.

 

The USA is full of pride ( cynics would say “shit”) and it is dangerous when a former world power is on a slippery dip to mediocrity.  In a country where they say, the second place getter is the first loser, you must have nightmares that someone, somewhere is overtaking you. I feel sorry for President Obama, who must be asking himself, why he ever nominated to be a candidate for President of the United States. Well, seeing him at the convention I must say, it was sheer pride.

 

And  then there is Israel. In 1948 it became the homeland for the displaced Jews from the war ravaged Europe. The inoffensive Jews of the diaspora became the aggressive Israelis who had no compassion for their Palestinian  fellow citizens who had taken them in in friendship and good will.

 

Seventy years ago there was an uprising in Warsaw. Polish pride lead the resistance movement onto a suicide mission. They did not know the Russians wanted  them destroyed  and the Germans were just the right people to do it.  A year earlier Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto staged an uprising on their own against the Nazis. It was not so much pride as pure desperation.

When I look at today’s news I’m reminded of those two uprisings and the behaviour of the occupiers. Gaza is being destroyed, as was Warsaw – street by street , house by house. You would think the Jews among the Israelis have learned something in the diaspora. They only repeat the mistakes of others. Of course, if you declare someone your enemy, your pride tells you,  you must give them no quarter.

 

No quarter is given in the Ukraine either. Did you have a closer look at those separatists?  They bristle with pride as they fondle their automatic weapons as teenagers would play with their erect members.  The Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is  full of false pride himself, promising  that we , the Australians, will recover the bodies and  the evidence and will bring the perpetrators to justice.  I can tell him right now, that won’t happen. He will have to swallow his pride and tell the people of Australia he can not accomplish the mission. If he tries a military solution he must be prepared to see his elite soldiers coming home in body bags, if at all. Russia has been the grave yard for many.

Here in Australia, with no neighbours we have to deal with, chest thumping is a well understood pastime, especially during the Commonwealth Games.  We are the greatest, but don’t get the idea coming here to live among us. Aussie pride is a great confidence builder, but in the wider world out there, we would have to learn to swallow our pride.

 

Mankind, as a whole, has not learnt much since biblical times and that is why “Pride” is still one of the deadly sins.

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What is happening in the Ukraine ?

Lately the media was  full of news from the Ukraine. People in the 1532 years old city of Kiev demonstrated on Kiev’s Independence Square,  only to be shot at by security forces. On Saturday, the 22nd of February former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko was released from the prison hospital and appeared in front of the demonstrators at Independence Square.

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When I saw her there, with her traditional hairdo, I was reminded of the occasion I saw Ukrainian women for the first time in my life.

This happened at the beginning of April 1945. A beautiful sunny spring  Sunday invited my Mum and me for a walk in the nearby “Viktoria Park”. And lo and behold, when we turned  the first street corner  on the way to the park an amazing sight awaited us. Like a swarm of  the most beautiful butterflies we saw dozens and dozens of young woman in traditional Ukrainian dresses wearing their hair in a braid around their heads like a crown, indeed this style  is called “Crown of the Peasants”. The very style of hairdo Timoshenko wore when she addressed the people on Independence Square.

This fresh sight jarred my memory. The clothes these women wore on that day were all embroidered  with beautiful flowers. When they were talking to each other it sounded to me like birds chirping. I was astounded and asked my mother, “Mum, are they angels?”

“No, Peter, these women are Ukrainians!”

When I heard this I decided that Ukrainian women must be some kind of angels. These young females worked in Berlin at the time. Coerced or voluntarily, it does not matter now. They had their day off and they all went to the park to enjoy  the first sign of the coming spring.  What they were not doing, as I know now, was looking forward to the Red Army coming to Berlin. People of the Soviet Union who were found in Germany after the war,  be it as prisoners or workers, were not liberated but treated as traitors. Women suffered the indignity of being raped and then sent off to a labour camp in Siberia.

Ukrainians had a special relationship with Germans at this time of the war, as they saw Russians as their common enemy. And in the present struggle they look  to Germany for help in achieving their goal of joining the European Union.

We live in Australia now and we have met many former Ukrainians here at work and in a family way. Two of my grandsons had Ukrainian grandparents on their father’s side.  Later this year they will travel to the Ukraine. Little did they know, when they made their travel arrangements, that they were heading towards a country in the midst of a revolution.

The Ukrainian women I saw in the Spring of 1945 must be, if they are still alive, in their late eighties now. I wonder what they would still remember of what happened to them then. Perhaps they don’t want to remember.

None the less they are being remembered for having brightened a nine year old  boy´s day in early April of 1945.