“I saw a devil approaching me” – WWII remembered
World War II veterans recount their stories about the war, how it began and what happened in the very first days of the fighting.
Inna Strelnikova, who served as an air defense soldier, was a resident of the besieged city of Leningrad.
“The first air raid came to Leningrad the next day after the war was announced, on June 23. German planes broke through and started to bomb the city. And they kept doing it every day. There was ceaseless fire and air raids. And the siege began on September 8. It all went very bad.”
The veteran recalls what life in the blockaded city was like.
“Back then in November 1942 they gave us just four ounces of bread. That was for dependent family members. And I was yet to finish school. I was a schoolgirl, so it was so tough. And my mother used to get eight ounces of bread because she worked. She operated a gas producer vehicle. After that she got a cold and died in 1942. And I was all alone.”
At that time people would not hesitate to sell the most valuable things for bread crumbles.
“I had some china and mother’s clothes and so I had to trade them for food. And what could I do? I would give a new coat or a new suit for a quarter of a bread loaf, that’s it. And also my mother had left some cigarettes. And I exchanged them for pieces of leather at the leather-making plant so that I could cook them because I had no food stocked at home at all. I cooked broth jelly, not soup, from these leather pieces and that is what I had to eat. It was so awful when people died in streets.”
People were exhausted and many would not survive to see the end of the blockade. The city streets were full of dead bodies.
“It was so awful when people died in streets. There were so many dead bodies out there and other people would rush to these bodies like scavenger birds and they stripped them of clothes and they also cut flesh, made ground meat out of it and sold it. Or they ate them themselves, but those who ate it ended up going insane.”
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Ilmar Puteklis, who during the war years was a partisan in Latvia, recalls how he joined the partisan movement.
“Upon my request I was assigned to the Latvian stand-by regiment, where I spent several months. And then I was sent to be trained as a partisan to join the Latvian Partisan movement. That is how I got to Latvia in 1943. We had a permanent base, but also we had two or three alternate bases, where we could hide in case of emergency if we got attacked.”
But others joined the movement in a more unusual way:
“I remember once we got back from our mission, very tired. We put out perimeter guards and suddenly heard one of them shout: ‘Freeze!’ And we heard them shooting. After he told us: ‘I saw a devil approaching me.’ So we had to put out the fire and move to another base. And then again our guards raised the alert. And a big man with a mighty beard came up to us with his hands up. I don’t recall his name now, but I recall that he was originally from Tambov region. And that he was a vet. He was taken captives by the Germans in Latvia and managed to flee from the detention camp in the fall of 1941. He wanted to get across the front line. But the front line was already too far away. And his plan didn’t work. And so he decided to make a dug-out shelter for himself in the woods. And for that purpose he used to steal material for his construction from the nearby villages. He made a room in his shelter with a bed, a stove and a small cellar pit to store food. He showed us his shelter. After he had shaved he turned out to be quite a young man, about 35 years old. And he joined our unit. It was his incredible beard that scared our guard who called him a devil.”