During World War II, the lives of hundreds of millions of average people were directly affected by decisions made by a handful of political and military leaders. WWII Behind Closed Doors features stories told by people who lived in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the devastating war on the eastern front. Having spent most of their lives under repressive Communist governments, they are now free for the first time to tell their tales. Here are some of these witnesses to history.
a 20-year-old member of a Soviet secret police (NKVD) unit in eastern Poland, was ordered in 1939 to forcibly relocate Polish families to remote areas of the Soviet Union.
“I was given another officer to help me. We started to count their families. By February it was all completed and then we were ordered to resettle them. It was a difficult task. Very difficult. Then I was young and it was just do, do, do. But now when I think about it–to leave kids without milk or anything–it was a very hard thing to do.
Well, Stalin was much like a god for everybody. And all of his words were the last word on any subject. You couldn’t even think it wasn’t right. One did not doubt it at the time. Every decision that was made was correct. That wasn’t only my opinion–we were all thinking like that. We were building Communism. We were obeying orders. We believed.
When I grew up I started to think about it–what kind of task was that? Of course we shouldn’t have done that when I think about it–and I thought about it then, but it’s one thing to think and another to do.”
was a schoolgirl living with her widowed mother in eastern Poland when the NKVD arrested her brother in the fall of 1939. The following spring, as the NKVD began targeting the family members of arrested Poles, Nina and her mother were deported to Kazakhstan, where they spent the next three years. During their first winter there, one of the women with whom they shared living space died. Unable to dig into the frozen ground, they left the woman’s body on a bench until the ground thawed enough for a burial.
“Together we rented a dugout house in Bulayevo. The house was terrible. Apart from all of us, there were twelve other families who had also been relocated already living there. And we had a corner of the dugout and just the basket we had taken with us from home. That was where we slept.
We had to walk past her [the dead woman], me on the way to school and my mother on her way to work. My mother said to the head doctor, “I can no longer work. I’ve been living next to dead bodies for a couple of months now. It just isn’t possible.” It is impossible to comprehend. It was a situation with no exit. We discovered later that in 1941 there’d been an amnesty for Polish citizens, but nobody told us about it.”
was a Red Army officer stationed in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland after September 1939, when the Soviet command and the NKVD began deporting Polish citizens to labor camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan.
“The deportation of the locals from the western territories which looked horrible was nonetheless not a surprise to us because we’d seen it all before. We were raised to believe that these were enemies of the people and that they had to be deported. At the time, it was the norm for us.
We ruined, we spoiled the life of the Polish leaders and the intellectuals and the local population. But it’s only now that I’m becoming aware of it and I have to be honest to say that at the time we didn’t know that. You’ll have to ask the Poles whether we did more harm than good or the opposite. I think that looking at it, you know, in a human way, I think there were more bad things than good things.”
was the NKVD chief for the Kalinin region of the Soviet Union in 1940. In March of that year, Tokarev was instructed to oversee the murder of Polish prisoners who were to be transferred to a Kalinin prison from the nearby camp, Ostashkov. Each night for about a month, junior NKVD agents murdered Polish officers, intellectuals, and other members of the elite.
“I should tell you that on the first night they brought 300 people. I thought it was too many. The night was short and we could only work during the hours of darkness.
I saw all that horror. They came in and a few minutes later Blokhin [a junior NKVD officer] was wearing his special clothing–brown leather apron, brown leather gloves with cuffs over his elbows. This produced a horrible impression on me. I saw an executioner.
The mechanics of the killing were worked out by Blokhin together with the commandant of our administrative board, Rubanov. They covered the doors to the shooting cells that led to the corridor so the sounds of the shootings couldn’t be heard. Then the accused, well, let’s call them that, were brought through the corridor. They were brought into the cells to be shot.
I want to say the following: it was certainly a horrible business. Rubanov, for instance, went mad. Pavlov, my first deputy, shot himself dead. Sukharev, my driver, shot himself dead and even Blokhin shot himself dead.”
lived before the war with her family in the suburbs of Lwów, the principal cultural center of Eastern Poland. The Soviets occupied her country in 1939; they returned once more in 1944.
“I was really terrified. They [the Red Army soldiers] seemed strange to me. I don’t know how to explain it but it was really terrifying. It seemed to us that the hordes had come. They took over our place, the furniture and all the other things and they said that everything was now theirs. We no longer had any right to any of it.
In 1944, when the Red Army came for the second time…it was of course worse because we had an idea of what the consequences might be. Because of all the arrests that there had been in 1939 and 1940. For us, it was not a war of liberation, it was a war of occupation. We felt betrayed because we had hoped that the West would react differently, but it did not turn out like that. We were even hoping that England and France [would help us], but that didn’t happen.”
was an 18-year-old Red Army soldier at the battle for Moscow. In late 1944, he was ordered to become “Polish” as part of Stalin’s plan to use Red Army soldiers to create a Polish armed forces loyal to the USSR.
“The story was that I came from the town of Rzeszów. I said, “How can I be from Rzeszów if I have never been in that town? At least I should go and have a look at it.” And they said, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t exist anymore. It was completely destroyed by the Germans.”
I felt deep satisfaction when the Poles themselves took me for a real Pole. I went to Warsaw and I was walking on the streets there when a Polish lady ran to me. In the end she said, “Oh, at last. I can see a real Polish officer. How wonderful that is.” We started to talk and then I saw she looked somehow disappointed. She asked me, “But why is your accent so bad? You must be from Krakow.” I said, “No, I come from Rzeszów.” I didn’t want to admit I was Russian. It would look bad. A Russian officer in the Polish army–it would look like a fake army. I felt that if I had undertaken to be a Polish commanding officer, let everyone continue thinking that I was Polish.”
was a 19-year-old unit commander with the underground Polish Home Army when, on August 1, 1944, they rose up against the Nazis in German-occupied Warsaw. Their failed attempt to take back the city lasted more than 60 days.
“In Lwów, the Underground Army, which was cooperating with the Russians when they took over the city, was then disarmed and arrested. We received information that this Soviet army would do the same thing in Warsaw. So we made the decision to instigate the rising.
Just imagine, after four years of occupation, we come out on this fragrant August day full of people, the women with children, people going back home from work, and all of a sudden there’s sixty-four armed insurgents in the street. In a moment they would start dying.
My friend died four minutes after the action started, just a short step away from me. He was shot in the chest. Just a few moments ago he was alive; he even still had his grenade in his hand. And then the slaughter started.
Just imagine, it was sixty something days in conditions that weren’t even fit for animals. We were hounded. Imagine if your closest friends are killed, if the city and the churches are burned down, and all life is collapsing. And everything you live for has disappeared.”
a communications officer in Marshall Georgy Zhukov’s headquarters, attended the Soviet victory parade held in Moscow on June 24, 1945, following the end of the European war. As Stalin had been injured while practicing for the parade on horseback, he asked Zhukov to take the mounted salute instead.
“The victory parade was a brilliant event in the life of the Soviet Union. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It was a summer’s day, it was raining, but the Red Square was decorated with red banners. People were wearing medals and orders and they were shining so much that the light reflected on the whole of Red Square. As the hands of the clock moved close to ten, everyone stood to attention. There were the Kremlin chimes, and at that moment Georgy Zhukov, three times hero of the Soviet Union, rode into the square on a white horse. He sat on the horse so elegantly, as if he were a junior lieutenant.
I think that when Stalin himself saw those two army commanders and their horses he felt jealous. Because of course he should have inspected the parade or commanded the parade, but he couldn’t do it. I think that’s how the jealousy of Zhukov started.”
was a German teenager living in East Berlin when the Soviet forces took control of the area as the war ended.
“I knew that in the first days of the occupation my aunt had been raped. She was in her apartment with her children and the [Red Army] soldiers asked the children, “Where’s your mother?” They then raped her several times. My other aunt, they just ripped the jewelry right off her. They didn’t just take it off, they ripped it off.”
worked as a naval intelligence officer in the White House throughout the war. In July 1945 he flew to Germany as part of the American delegation to the Potsdam conference.
“First impressions on flying into Germany of course were the devastation, the unbelievable devastation. It was sickening to see the damage and to see the pathetic state of the German people that were there. But sympathies, I must say, were not very great. We were just shocked and horrified, but you couldn’t feel, we didn’t feel as sorry for them as we should have because after all they’d brought this on themselves.”