As a boy, I had no choice but to answer the challenge of war – World War II veteran

The greatest war to shatter humankind has finished long time ago, but the echoes of it still can be heard nowadays. There are still people who fought on the frontlines against Nazi Germany – and those who went through all the horrors that humanity saw during the Second World War. Today Sophie speaks to a man who was among one of the many defenders of the Soviet Union, and victors over Nazi Germany. Victor Rukhmanov, World War II veteran, is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Mr. Rukhmanov, thank you for being with us on this remarkable day, and for agreeing to share your story with us. You were eleven years old when the war broke out. Do you remember that day?

Victor Rukhmanov: Absolutely. It was a June morning. I was ten-and-a-half. Me and my my Mom were going to grab an ice cream and then go to the zoo. We were headed for the tram, when all of a sudden all this commotion started happening, this noise around us. “It’s war!”, said my Mom suddenly. And I went ‘Mom, what are you talking about? Aren’t we going somewhere?’. She said: “Come on. It’s war!” She grabbed me, and I lost my footing and fell on the tram track. I still have a scar from that. That was how I first heard of the war. Prior to that I had no idea what war was.

From that moment on, all kinds of reports and announcements started pouring in over the radio, and everybody around me was terrified by the news. Then, Soviet troops started to withdraw. I remember seeing off the last tankette to pass through. The troopers were hungry, so I ran to my Grandma and brought out some bread and cutlets. It wasn’t even a proper tank. You know, more of a tiny armored vehicle. So… then, a while later, the Germans came.

SS:Do you remember the day they arrived?

VR: I do. I just can’t remember the date. Once we boys heard about them, we ran to have a look. There was a bridge in Kharkov that linked two neighborhoods together. That’s where we spotted the Germans. They looked so strikingly unlike our troops. Of course, it was the different uniform. I remember they had pale-colored trenchcoats, and helmets. They carried submachine guns. And they had these metal belt buckles. Later on, we found out they weren’t the Army, they were the Gendarmerie, the military police.

SS:What was your first emotion? Was it fear? Curiosity? Or maybe even admiration?

VR: You know… I felt numb. It was a weird, inexplicable feeling. We kind of froze, trying to figure out what is this… thing. Later on, German regular troops started to arrive and take up quarters in Kharkov, including the street where we lived. I remember how the first of those units marched in – it was summertime. They moved into the houses of local residents, all around the neighborhood, but I want to talk specifically about my street, because that’s where we would hang out all day with other boys. We watched those Germans and we spoke to them, and we even did some work for them. Well, we were forced to. We shined their boots. A few times, we washed their cars. Sometimes we would take off our hats, and they would give us some pea-sized candy. And sometimes, all we’d get was a kick in the butt, and we would scatter and run, hearing them roar with laughter at us.

SS:Did everything change once they came? Did they rearrange everything to their liking?

VR: There were a lot of things we found striking. To start, they’ve imposed their own order, a completely different set of rules for everyone. There was a curfew. People were free to walk the streets from nine to five, but after five, no one was allowed outside. If you went outside, you were risking your life, because the Germans could do whatever they wanted once they stopped you. They could take any man and hang him, and put a sign on him and write whatever explanation they felt like – it could be “Communist,” or “Partisan,” or “Jew.” And that was it – case closed. Hanged people would be left on the gallows for weeks as a deterrent.

We were also bewildered by their way of life. They would be brought back from the front for some rest, but spend the entire month training. Our street ended at a small field that was fenced off, and they would use it as a firing range to practice with their four-barrel machine guns. They also did physical drills, and their NCOs were never shy about pushing troopers around. No matter who they were, they’d go, “Drop! Get up! Drop! Get up!” But there was one thing they all considered sacred, and that was lunch.

They were also impeccably dressed. I remember one staff sergeant who wore a monocle and carried a swagger stick, and even though our neighborhood bordered a forest and it was a bit dusty, his jackboots were always squeaky, shiny clean. Just picture a man with a monocle stroll down our small street, waving his cane, whistling, and smelling of perfume. It was absolutely astonishing.

Apart from their rations and all those chocolates they had shipped over from France, each German trooper carried his own first aid kit to patch themselves up in case they got wounded. It included all kinds of medical instruments, complete with a little bone saw, so that you could amputate your limb yourself if you had to. They were supplied superbly. It was such a striking difference from the Soviet units we’d seen, where troopers didn’t have enough foot wrap, or carried one rifle for several men. That’s as the Germans were equipped like this.

Whenever a German force left Kharkov, others would come in its stead.

SS:Did they rotate all the time?

VR: They did rotate. Once the Army left, the SS arrived. With them came an entirely different atmosphere.

SS:You’ve seen them all: the Army, the SS, the Gestapo. How were they different from one another?

VR: Men from regular troops were rather wary, and it seemed there was no love lost between them and the SS.

When the SS were stationed in Kharkov, there was a totally different feeling in the streets. The regulars had been more liberal: they weren’t above talking to locals, and they could even share some of their kitchen leftovers with us. There was no such thing with the SS.

Once, a trooper gave me his leaky boots to clean. It was early spring, and it was still very cold outside. So I put on those boots to keep my feet warm as I crossed the yard. An SS man spotted me from a window and wagged his finger at me, calling me over. I went into that house, and he made me explain to him how I’d gotten those boots. So I did. I told him, in German, “Arbeiten, botse.” He understood. But he made me take them off, and then he made me walk home with only my socks on, tip-toeing through snow that still lay outside.

He didn’t really need those boots. It was just that I wasn’t supposed to be wearing them. I guess I should be thankful that he didn’t choose a more severe punishment. As I hurried home, I walked backwards. I was afraid to turn my back to him, because I had no idea what he might do.

SS:You thought he was going to shoot you?

VR: Exactly.

The officers who were living next door had a garden there. There were two huge barrels, and we had to fetch water and fill those barrels up, to water the garden. The weather was very dry, and we had to walk at least a mile to get water. It was extremely hot. So, we went to get water once, twice, and then I realized I couldn’t do it anymore, I was exhausted. I went to my Grandma’s, and she just told me to lie down. So then this officer’s aide storms into the room waving his pistol around and yells, “Aufstehen!” which means, “Get up!” Grandma obviously got scared, and ran downstairs to get our neighbor. He was the house owner’s son, a surgeon. He went to medical school in Kharkov before the war. So, he came upstairs and confirmed that I was “krank”, that is, ill. After that, the German left me alone. I realized this could go on and on. And so after that I ran away from Kharkov.

SS:Before we talk about your escape, tell me about your school. What was it like at school when Germans came?

VR: We started learning German in the second grade. Whenever a German officer walked in, we had to stand up. He would say, “Heil Hitler!” and we had to say “Heil!” in response.

SS: Were you terrified? Or maybe you didn’t fully comprehend the situation because you were a little kid?

VR: I didn’t. You see, that’s just what we had to do. So we like parrots, saying, “Heil”.,,, These are all poems I learned back then.

SS: You remember them so well as if it was yesterday.

VR: Absolutely. It just stuck in my mind.

SS: What prompted you to run away? Were you trying to earn some money or just escape from it all?

VR: No, I just wanted to survive. Occupation was not just Germans living in our houses. There were executions, intimidation, all those posters saying “Hitler the Liberator” or “Jew.” We were afraid for our lives every single minute.

SS: So twelve-year-old you understood that, realized you couldn’t live like that and ran away?

VR: I ran away because I was afraid of consequences. I understood what might happen after I refused to fetch water. I knew they won’t leave me alone. And besides, there wasn’t enough food and I was hungry all the time.

SS: Tell us about your journey. You were a kid and alone, you walked through some villages on your way.

VR: Yes, I walked. I got on freight trains when I could. Now and then, there were police raids. But I kept walking, and eventually I got to a farm called Maryinka.

SS: Who fed you before you got there?

VR: No one. I begged, walked into villages, saying ‘For Christ’s sake, help me out’, and people fed me, gave me food. The funny thing is, I got into all sorts of situations. One time, I was attacked by a dog. I didn’t know it was there when I went in. So I step into a yard, start begging for food, and then this dog jumps at me. I was so scared I won’t go anywhere near a dog a long time.

SS:Where were the occupation forces at the time?

VR: All over Ukraine.

SS:Did you run into them?

VR: Only when there were raids. And then in Maryinka, where I worked. My first job was in the beet field, picking weevils. A weevil is a kind of beetle that damages crops. Then I helped with sharpening tools. Then I became a stable boy. They gave me a horse without a saddle, and I was supposed to take it to the watering hole. But a horse has to bend its neck to drink, and there was nothing for me to hold on to. So the other boys jeered and laughed at me while I was struggling on top of that horse. It was a test to see if I’d be any good at it. My next job was to drive the farm director around in his cart.

SS:He was a member of the resistance, right?

VR: Yes, it turned out later that he was. As our troops were advancing, war was getting closer, with all these shells flying around, he sowed 35 hectares of wheat. So when Soviet forces were near and the Germans were about to retreat, he sent a message through me for people to dig holes in the ground and hide whatever grain they could harvest there. We were to mark the spots where it was buried. The idea was to preserve the wheat, because the Germans set everything on fire when they retreated, and this wheat would’ve just burned. Before they left, the Germans said, “Whoever believes in us and our army can go to Germany with us.”

SS: Did anyone go with them?

VR: Yes. Yes, of course. Many people from the farm went. The Polizei and others who liked Germans went with them.

SS:You mean local Ukrainians who served as police officers under Germans?

VR: Yes. So they went to the station, and those who remained hid in dug-out holes to wait for Soviet troops. Sometimes we would come out to find something to eat, but mostly we were trying to sit out the fighting, waiting for our forces to arrive and for this nightmare to end. From what I heard, those who followed the Germans got locked inside four train cars and were just set on fire.

SS:So they didn’t even get to Germany.

VR: They didn’t even leave! They were locked inside freight train cars and burned alive. But we stayed and waited for our troops. When they arrived, I saw that they all had the Order of the Red Banner. They were hungry, so we gave them some food. I knew the Order of the Red Banner was a Guards’ badge, and that was the first time I saw one.

SS:Were you happy to see Soviet troops?

VR: Of course. How can you even ask that? Even now when I talk about it my eyes fill with tears. They were our people. When they came, we were so incredibly happy. They asked us how we were doing, where the Germans went, and where to go next. I begged them to take me with them, but they refused since I was too young.

SS:But you made it to the front eventually.

VR: I did later on, but the first time they said no.

SS:Of course they did, you were only 12.

VR: The first time they didn’t let me go with them and left. But when I returned to Kharkov in the autumn of 1943 I was finally able to join the Red Army. I made friends with some of the soldiers I met at the train station. I used to come over and help them here and there. So they took me along with them and on February 11 they officially made me part of the unit, the ‘son of the regiment’, as they used to call such camp follower children in the war.

SS:So they were just taking care of you, feeding you?

VR: No, quite the opposite, I fed them. I worked, just like anyone else. Our unit was a part of the Railroad Reconstruction Front. Its job was to follow the frontline units and rebuild the roads so that the troops would be able to move forward. So I was doing whatever had to be done.

SS:What did you do exactly?

VR: Lots of things. I slept for three to four hours a day. I started off in the kitchen. When soldiers returned in the middle of the night I had to get up and feed them, and there was no-one to help me. I also had to cook the food during the night so that the breakfast would be on the table by morning. Then I learned to do other things. And when special task force units were out on various missions I also went with them because I knew the Ukrainian language.

SS:But you wanted to fight on the frontline?

VR: Yes, I wanted to fight, I wanted to shoot. I did have a gun but I wanted to see an actual battle. There was one story that happened to me in Kolomia, where our unit was rebuilding a bridge. The local Ukrainian nationalist guerillas were operating there, and I heard that they were planning a raid. I could ride a horse, and I had some civvies besides the uniform, so I went to Kolomia in the middle of the night on my horse to warn our unit. So when the attack came, our soldiers were able to repel them and save the bridge. So I actually saved the engineers who were working there.

I was even nominated for the Order of the Red Star, but I never received it. In any case they did submit an application saying that I had saved the bridge and the people.

SS:Could you tell us what was life like for you and your fellow soldiers? Did you have any hopes? Was Stalin your main hope?

VR: You know, we never talked about Stalin as our main hope. I remember when back in Kharkov I heard a German, Karl Hopkin, once say, ‘When the war is over Stalin is kaput, and Hitler is kaput. I will stay in Ukraine for good’. Those words sounded really staggering. Now that you asked about Stalin, this phrase came right back to me, that’s how much it shocked me back then.

SS: And what about your fellow soldiers, what did they think about Stalin?

VR: Noone really spoke about him too often, let alone prayed to him. He wasn’t an icon to pray to. But as you know, he was indeed a very important figure. I remember a time before the war when a teacher was once mean to me. Back then Stalin used to take the train through Kharkov when going on vacation. And we thought this year he’ll do that again. So I told the teacher that I would run to the train station and complain to Stalin about her. I was truly obsessed with that idea back then.

SS:How did the Romanians and Moldovans greet you? Did they welcome you as liberators?

VR: Actually, not everywhere. People in Slovakia and Romania were friendly. We had to lodge in people’s apartments, just like Germans did. With a few exceptions, we had no other options. Very few areas had special accommodation organized for soldiers. I remember I had only good impressions from Slovakia. I even made friends with some kids I met there. Much later I toured Czechoslovakia as a performer, so I decided to find the place where I stayed during the war, pay a visit the hostess. Her name was Maria. Someone gave me the address, and so I went over there. And when I entered the house she shouted out,’ Viktor!’

SS: So she recognized you?

VR: Absolutely. That was simply unbelievable! She tried to pour me some wine, but I had an evening performance that day, so I was in a hurry and couldn’t stay longer. So I had to say goodbye. That was quite a meeting.

SS: As far as I understand, you were in Slovakia when the war ended, right?

Do you remember the day when victory was proclaimed?

VR: Yes, I do. First, I remember there was a whole lot of shooting. They gathered us all in a clubhouse and a general announced that the war was over. I think it was May 2. Well, this was something unbelievable, absolutely incredible. It’s impossible to truly describe our emotions, our feelings, our excitement at that moment.

SS: I know that you participated in the Victory Parade of 1945. Do you remember it? Did you see Stalin there?

VR: Of course. I was marching together with Suvorov Military School cadets. That was exactly what I wanted. You know, I come from a military background. My grandfather was an NCO in the Russian Imperial army. My father participated in all the wars – in World War I, in the Russian Civil War and in the Finnish War. In our family we called him the good soldier Švejk. My mom also fought in the war.

SS:Now I understand why you ran away to the front.

VR: Yes, I simply had to do that. Even when the war just began, when German planes appeared in our skies, I felt a spirit of defiance rising, I felt a desire to answer the challenge. For me, it was an extraordinary adventure. The fact that boys play war and watch action movies shows that they crave for this kind of adventure, they want to be part of it. Me too I also had a great desire to fight in the war, to make myself useful. So those memories are among the most treasured and unique to me.

SS: Viktor, thank you again for sharing your fascinating story with us. I hope one day they’re going to make a movie about it. Thank you and goodbye.

VR: Goodbye.