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elvira kohn

Each one of us had his duties and knew what he/she was supposed to do. I knew exactly what took place when and where, in terms of meetings, conferences, events, campaigns, and I followed the schedule. I was the only female photo-reporter within ZAVNOH. There were two other male photo-reporters, but sometimes there were called in for other duties, so there were times when I was the only photo-reporter for ZAVNOH.

After the supreme headquarters formed their own public-relations department, I started to work for them, and I stayed there until the war was over.

For a while we stayed in Topusko and were about to start the preparations for celebrating 8th March [International Women's Day]. However, we received the order to move to Zadar. Zadar was terribly bombed, but liberated, and so we were given orders to reach Zadar.

After we packed our belongings, we set out on our journey from Topusko to Zadar. In front of us was a Russian military mission, the English and the Americans, and each had flags on their trucks. And, again, the day was sunny and clear, the Germans saw the truck convoy and started bombing. When we were forming our convoy, each truck had a number; each department received a number and had to load the truck with the corresponding number.
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When the partisans arrived from Crikvenica on the Island of Rab, whoever wanted to join the partisans could join them. A group of young Jewish boys registered and was sent to Korski Kotar. Most of them didn't know how to use weapons so many of them lost their lives soon after they were liberated from Rab.

I immediately decided to join the partisans. They asked every one of us individually what we wanted, where we wanted to go, which brigade we want to join, what our profession was. I told them I was a professional photographer, and that I had a camera, that I had a Leica.

They were very surprised to hear this, and very glad, so they invited me to join the advertising and public-relations department of ZAVNOH [8], which was situated in Otocac at the time. They asked about my mother and what her profession was. So I said she was a housewife, and they replied that she should also come because we would need her around the kitchen. And so we left the Island of Rab; most of the inmates from the camp decided to join the partisans.

We got aboard a large boat that had both motors and sails, and arrived in Senj. Senj was completely bombed and destroyed, the whole town except for a church. We stayed in the church for several nights and slept on the wooden church benches. From Senj, we left on ox-drawn carts across Velebit and reached Otocac. For a while we stayed there. My mother worked in the kitchen, and I was part of the public-relations department of ZAVNOH. Apart from this department, there were other departments, like the educational, cultural, technological one and others.

My job was to take photos of various events that took place within ZAVNOH. They had board meetings, conferences, workshops, exhibitions, concerts; all kinds of events were taking place. It was like a government so many activities were going on, and I had to take photos of all the events. All the high-ranking officials of the government were there.
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Rafael Genis

I reached Kiev with the army of Marshall Rybalko [Marshall Pavel Semyonovich Rybalko (1892-1948) commanded the Third Tank Guards Army, which liberated parts of Eastern Europe from Nazi occupation in WWII] and took part in the liberation of this city. At night on 6th November we crossed the Dniepr on boats. There was a gun crew with us and they put boards one in front of the other and placed two anti-tank weapons on each of the boards. The German artillery fired on the boats from the high right bank. They hit our boat and I swam to the right bank. I was drifted away 500 meters as the current of the Dniepr was strong. I was in Kiev. There was a barge by the dock. I reached it and then I remember only a flash of the blasted shell. I can't remember anything else.
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Knowing the Fascists' attitude towards the Jews, and reading the military press, I understood that Lithuanian Jews, including my relatives, were exterminated. When we were liberating towns and villages in Ukraine, the local people told us about executions of Jews in ghettos and camps, about the atrocity of the Fascists. I saw horrible pits, the places where Jews perished and understood even more that I remained alone. My task was revenge. I went in every battle to take revenge and exterminate as many Fascists as possible. In summer 1943 I undermined four enemy tanks and every burning tank was a monument for my kin.
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There were a lot of tragic and sad things of course. Every day some of our pals didn't come back from the battle. So many of them were lost! We couldn't even bury them, just leave the cadavers on the battle field and move on. We saw boys dying. Even now I can't get how we were able to survive. We hadn't washed ourselves for months, didn't change our clothes, slept in wet dirty clothes, were frozen to death, but still we fought. Though, I should say that we were fed quite well at the time when there were problems with nutrition.
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When I finished the sergeant school I went in the reserve regiment of the tank army of the First Ukrainian Front. We covered almost all of Ukraine, having liberated Sumy, Poltava and the Chernigov oblast. Once in Poltava [today central Ukraine] I was in a dugout, and it was hit by a bomb. I was covered with earth. Fortunately, they found me and sent me to hospital. I had a bad concussion. After the hospital I happened to be in the 9th Tank- Destroyer division, which reached Kiev.
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I was sent to the 8th reserve regiment of the First Baltic Front in the vicinity of Orel [today Russia, 360 km south-west of Moscow]. The Lithuanian division was dislocated there, and I took part in battles for the liberation of that region. Now it is hard for me to remember the names and dates of the battles. I was as if in a stupor during that noise and cold. After several battles I was sent to the Moscow sergeant school. I was there for several months and it was a fabulous respite.
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I and hundreds of unseasoned recruits were thrown in the battle. We even had never held a weapon in our hands. I don't remember anything about the battle, but the whistle of the bullets. After the battle I was all shaken, I had malaria. I was put in a separate room in the unit, given quinine and sent to the hospital.
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I and hundreds of unseasoned recruits were thrown in the battle. We even had never held a weapon in our hands. I don't remember anything about the battle, but the whistle of the bullets. After the battle I was all shaken, I had malaria. I was put in a separate room in the unit, given quinine and sent to the hospital.
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We were going towards the Russian border. We were stopped by Lithuanians in Mazeikiai [town in North-West Lithuania, close to the Latvian border]. They had already taken the German side and they were not willing to let us through. Our activists had weapons, they shot a couple of times and the Lithuanians ran away. There was a covering force of Russian Army soldiers [8]. They didn't let any single civilian car, a cart or a pedestrian pass. There were a lot of people. At that time a low-flying German plane started firing at people a couple of times. Many weren't moving. Our car was crushed. The passengers scattered. My sandals were torn so I went barefoot. My feet still remember the hot July asphalt. At that time a military column was passing the border, and I got under the tarpaulin of one of their trucks and went with them. We reached Pskov [town in Western Russia, close to the Latvian border]. I was afraid that they would find me, so I jumped off the truck and sat on the curb.
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My birthday was on 21st June 1941. It was Saturday and my pals from the military unit wanted me to celebrate it with them, so I didn't go home. My pals and the head of the cart fleet Shalin celebrated with me. We drank a bottle of vodka and went dancing to the club. We stayed there until midnight. I went home and fell asleep straight away. At 6am I was awoken by Shalin: 'Get up, the war has started!' I should say that I wasn't surprised. We understood in the military unit that the war was inevitable. There was talk about it. We said that we wouldn't give up a single piece of our land. Shalin sent me over to the garage and ordered us to dismantle the cars for the Fascists not to take them. There were a lot of them and it took us a long time. We dug a huge pit and covered the cars with timber waste as the saw mill was nearby. By that time the town, where the military unit was located, was almost vacated. Some people ran away, others were hiding.
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Janina Duda

One of these Bortner cousins from Warsaw was in the Red Army, he fought in the Stalingrad battle [3]; he later returned home [to Poland] as an officer. He changed his last name to Tagori. He was a lieutenant colonel and got married in Lublin to a Polish woman, Zosia, a very pretty girl.
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Eva Ryzhevskaya

I asked the girl to stay with us. She promised that she would come to the basement, but later. She said she had to do something first. We went down to the basement, our operations started again. The girl didn't show up. When the bombing came to a halt again, we rushed to her apartment. We couldn't find her there. We went outside and saw her lying by the fence in a pool of blood. Her intestines were falling out from her abdomen, as a result of a shell fragment that had pierced her belly. Her serene and bright face and fair hair were covered in brick dust. I wasn't the only one who was crying. Even battle-seasoned soldiers, who went through pandemonium, were crying like babies. We couldn't get over that. Soldiers were supposed to die at war, not children, not the girl who was playing the piano. I would never forget that, even if I had lost my memory I would have never forgotten that girl. I will remember her till my death. She wasn't the first child murdered by the Germans. When we were retreating at the beginning of the war and moving towards Ukraine, we often saw the wells full with bodies of children. It was horrible, but these were nameless children. I saw the heaps of the murdered soldiers on the streets of Stalingrad. Death was everywhere. Everybody has his own perception and image of war. As for me, the image of war is that slender fair-haired girl lying in a pool of blood...
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Henrich Kurizkes

In February 1944 the crossing of the Narva began. There were violent battles for the Narva. There were Estonian SS military personnel in the Narva and they had nowhere to retreat. The German commanders convinced them that they were sending assistance soon and they were to hold defense until new forces joined them. And they staged a holdout of this plan. Another desperate thing about these battles was that Estonians fought Estonians, the Estonian Corps of the Soviet army against the Estonian SS division. There were cases when members of one family were on opposite sides. The river was frozen, but the ice was scarlet with blood.

In summer 1944 we managed to destroy the enemy fortifications on the bank of the river. Our battalion took part in these battles, but I would like to emphasize that the main blow was struck by the penal battalion fighting beside us. They were sent into initial attacks, and, frankly speaking, they were just cannon fodder. If it had not been for them our casualties would have been many more. There were few survivors in those penal battalions. They had to fight in penal battalions until 'first blood,' until their first wound, and after the hospital they were assigned to common military units.

One can speak a lot about hardships at the front. We continuously moved from one location to another fighting on a beachhead for one or two weeks before moving to new positions. To begin with, we dug trenches. It's impossible to count how many we had dug. Of all tools we only had entrenching shovels. We started with digging a hole to hide the body before deepening it to the size fitting the height of the body. Then we dug a passage to the nearest neighbor and then it became easier to work. Then, when this trench was completed we were ordered to move to another location and then started all over again.

We slept in the open air for the most part. It was fine in summer, when one could fall asleep on the grass, but winter was worse. We slept in twos on one ground sheet and one top coat and used another ground sheet and top coat to sleep under them. We used our back packs as a pillow and gripped our machine guns so that nobody could take them away. When we woke up three hours later, we were covered with a heavy layer of snow.

There was artillery preparation before each battle. By the end of the war we had sufficient artillery units. At the very start of my experience at the front we had 45mm anti-tank cannon guns called 'Farewell, Motherland!' It took three men to roll it onto an open space. They shot tanks point blank. However, the tanks didn't wait to be shot at. Very often these three soldiers were killed immediately. Later we got antitank rifles and rocket missiles. Also there were more planes attacking the enemy's positions, followed by artillery preparation and then the infantry attacked shouting 'Hurrah! For the Motherland!'

I remember our first battles. We were to rise to attack and it was scary to get on and march ahead, but we knew that we had to march ahead and had to stop thinking that we might be killed at any moment. Later, with more experience, this fear lessened, but never disappeared. It's impossible to get used to such things. But then we would think about our field kitchen delivering food after a battle, which was quite a comforting thought to enjoy. Of course, there were delays with food supplies, particularly in spring and fall, when roads were impassable. At such times field kitchens had problems catching up with armed forces.

There were many more battles after the Narva. We were marching across the territory of Estonia, from the south of Estonia via Tallinn heading to the islands. The Germans must have envisaged that the end was approaching and were hurriedly running away from Estonia.

I remember the battle for Saaremaa Island, which was a strategic point, and our regiment was to capture it. I was in Battalion 3. Battalion 1 was the first one to be sent to the island. It consisted of the marines of the Baltic Fleet on marine boats. These boats were the first to attack. They were to land on the beachhead and later we were to join them there. This landing ended tragically. The boats delivered them to the shallow water and they thought it was the sandbank, but it was followed by deep water and they all drowned.

It happened this way. The night battle on Saaremaa was frightful. We reached our positions. It was pitch dark and we bumped into the Germans heading to their boats. Our attack was quite unexpected for them. This was my first face to face fighting. Of course, we had fought before, but we never knew who killed whom or how many people each of us killed. The main goal was to move ahead and destroy the enemy. Nobody cared whether the enemy was killed by a cannon shell or one's bullet. There were no emotions. It was like a shooting range, while there we were close to the enemy and besides, we had to fight in this inky darkness.

We didn't know Germans before we grabbed them. They had longer hair, whereas we had very short haircuts. We grabbed someone by his head and if we felt the longer hair we knew it must be a German soldier. We fought with whatever was at hand: bayonets, knives, rifle and machine gun butt stocks. I didn't have a feeling that I was killing human beings. There was some animal feeling of self-protection: you were fighting for yourself and for your life. There were no other emotions.

In early 1945 I was sent on a course for junior command staff. After finishing this training I was awarded the rank of junior lieutenant. When we were sent to Kurland I had a platoon under my command. The final combat actions in Kurland were the most violent. Our command was in a hurry to wrest the ground from the enemy and finish the war, while German forces were holding the lines and fighting desperately, supporting some of their units to give them a chance to evacuate.

We were moving ahead very slowly: fighting, shooting, wresting the ground from the enemy, advancing 50-100 meters and stopping again. The location was unfavorable and there was no shelter: grassy clearing, then a spot of wood and then an open clearing again. Even the wounded had to wait for rescue until night and they had to stay there bleeding, if they happened to have been wounded on an open grass clearing.

My close school friend was fighting in the neighboring regiment. During an attack he was wounded in his leg and had to stay in a swamp all day long. There was no way to pull him out. At night he was taken out and sent to the medical battalion and later he was sent to hospital. He was developing gangrene, and the hospital could offer no cure. He had his leg amputated beneath his knee to stop the gangrene.

We fought in Kurland, when we had some period of inactivity. Actually through April 1945 we were only engaged in training. We made earth huts and were having a rest. We knew the war was coming to an end. In early May, Estonian General Lieutenant Lembit Piarn, Corps Commander, visited us. He came from the family of Caucasian Estonians. These families moved to Georgia in the 19th century looking for a better life. We lined up and Piarn told us that in a few days we would receive a signal to begin combat action and we were to prepare ourselves to advance 7 kilometers within one and a half hours and wrest the ground from the enemy.

We started preparations and training in aimed shooting on the run and running. Then, on 8th May 1945 in the late afternoon, we were ordered to start the combat action. We started moving to our positions. The tanks were moving along the road and the infantry was following them. It was still light, when all of a sudden the tank column stopped and I saw a Willis car approaching us from the German front line. It stopped and a general came out. He approached the tanks and pronounced loudly: 'That's it, comrades! The war is over!' Later I heard that this was General Panyushkin. He had already visited the Germans and they had signaled their surrender.
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Arnold Fabrikant

Then we fought at the 1st Belarusian Front. I participated in the famous Bagration operation. [Editor's note: Belarus operation of the Soviet army in the summer of 1944. The invasion force consisted of 1,700,000 troops supported by 6,000 planes, nearly 3,000 tanks, and 24,000 artillery pieces. This attack cost the Germans more men and material than the defeat at Stalingrad.] Then we came to Brest and moved onto the territory of Poland. After Warsaw was taken, the advance was suspended. That was when I thought: We are advancing the war is coming to an end, it's time to think about peaceful life. During the war I actively corresponded with girls like everybody else. We often received letters at the front from girls, with photographs in them: 'I would like to meet a young soldier.' The girls didn't know any name and address at first, of course. All the action was organized by the military. I had a whole collection of photographs of different girls signed on the backside: 'May this still-imprint remind you of a living soul,' or 'don't think about me, when you look at the photo, but think - and then look!' There was one girl from the Far East, but this wasn't what I was thinking about. I wrote to the girl in Odessa whom I liked, but there was no response.

From Poland we returned to Belarus and then moved to Lithuania. Our division was one of the first to cross the border of Prussia and come to German land. [Eastern Prussia was bordering with Lithuania before the war. After the annexation of the Baltic States (1940) it became a German- Soviet border. After the war Eastern Prussia was divided up in between the Soviet Union and Poland.] At the border, there was a post with a sign reading 'Here it is - the fascist Germany!' Of course, that Europe was radically different from where we came from. I compared the houses in Prussia with the ones we had seen in Belarus. I even took a picture of one house in Prussia, so well-designed it was. When we entered Germany, we were allowed to send trophies home. Everybody looked for something to send home. I sent my mother a gown, fabric, some pieces of cloth. There were many abandoned houses. Our soldiers were particularly eager to get watches. Sometimes they would stop a German man asking, 'Uhr, Uhr [German for 'watch'] take it off!' I had about 16 watches. There was a popular saying: 'let's make an exchange without looking!' to swap watches. The watches were a kind of luxury in the USSR. Some didn't care about trophies and others were greedy - one could tell what people were like.

During the war relations between people were the same as in peaceful times. If a person was bad, he was not liked. We sensed what a bad commander was like when somebody named Alexandrov replaced our commanding officer, Glavatskiy. Everything changed in the regiment. Alexandrov had stayed in the rear forming marching companies, but at the end of the war there was no more need in doing this and he was appointed regiment commanding officer. He came to Prussia with his wife, but he turned out to be such a womanizer that he had several lovers. His wife made a scandal every day. We were allowed to lodge in apartments and my orderly found me one about one and a half kilometers from where our military unit was deployed. All of a sudden there was alarm every night. This Alexandrov had nothing to do in the evenings after the scandals with his wife, but raise alarms. Every night I had to jump out of my bed to run to the unit - this was painful! Everybody cursed him, and I still recall him with disgust.

At about the same time a woman doctor came to our regiment. Her name was Valia; I don't remember her surname. We all recall her with warmth. She was a dentist technician. She was a big fat woman. There were no trousers of her size, so she wore a long skirt. She had many patients, but no anesthetics. For anesthetization she would lie down on the patient with her big bust - this was her method. For a long time, and this made her different from other women, looking for men at the front, Valia was alone. Then she finally fell in love with the battalion commanding officer Petrus. One night they were making love in an earth hut and she began to groan loudly. The Germans heard it and started firing. This was the front line. Later there was an investigation: 'Who screamed? Why?' But we didn't give her away and the case was eventually dismissed.

In 1944 I got a letter from my mother from Odessa. She had returned home, but there were other people staying in our apartment. Before she managed to have them move out by a court's decision she lived in a small storeroom in the conservatory that Maria Podrayskaya helped her with. Then one room became available in our apartment and my mother moved in there. Everything was gone - our mahogany furniture, my grandfather's pieces, valuables. My mother only discovered a copper mortar and a bookshelf at our neighbors'. She bought a black plastic upholstery divan, when she received her first salary. She was assistant chief of the cardiology department of the Lermontov health center, headed by Professor Zhigalov, one of the most famous cardiologists in Odessa then.

In Eastern Prussia the Commander of the Western and 3rd Belarussian Front, Army general Ivan Cherniakhovskiy issued the only order throughout wartime: 'Save people!' Commanding officers were brought to trial for violation of the order for unjustified casualties. I had a good friend called Kostia Brovin, commanding officer of a rifling company, an accountant in peaceful life. A smart reserved guy, we had many common interests. A soldier from Kostia's group of combat security disappeared. Whether Germans kidnapped him or he surrendered - nobody could tell, but he had disappeared and that was a fact, and Kostia was brought to the tribunal because he was a commander, and sent to a penal battalion. [Penal battalions were subdivisions of the Soviet Army to which people were sent for punishment during the war. They were used at the most dangerous frontlines, basically sent to certain death]. He perished in the first battle. General Cherniakhovskiy was mortally wounded in Eastern Prussia in 1945. This was the most annoying thing: to perish at the end of the war.

On 13th January 1945 we got an order to attack, when we were not ready for it whatsoever. It turned out later that the Germans beat down the ally troops in Belgium and they asked Stalin to help them. [The last significant German counter-attack took place on 5th January 1945 in the Ardennes. It was not successful and the Germans were gradually retreating afterwards.] To save the situation we were made to attack, when we didn't have sufficient stocks of shells, when there were many wounded people and when no additional troops had been sent. It was hard to break through the German defense near Konigsberg. We couldn't avert the artillery firing of the Germans and had many injured people. When their artillery firing began, somebody shouted in the trenches, 'Hold on, Vanyka, it's beginning!'

By late March 1945, after hard battles in Eastern Prussia, we were sent to the rear for remanning and we thought the war was over for us. Our echelon reached the town of Lida in Belarus. We went to sleep and in the morning, when we woke up, it turned out we were moving across Poland. What happened was that we were transferred to the 1st Ukrainian Front moving to Berlin. On 22nd April we started our first battle near Zossen - the location of the underground headquarters of Hitler's land troops. After the battle we started looking for interesting trophies. I took a map of Berlin from the wall and I still have it.

In April we entered Potsdam and joined in the most horrible action - street fighting. I was in infantry troops since there was no artillery used in these operations, just machine guns and grenades. On 30th April 1945 we began our attack on the railway station, and this was also the Charlottenburg metro station in Berlin. This was a three-storied reinforced concrete building with big windows and doors. There was a big square in front of the building with a low steel fence with one entrance way. There was no other way and we had to send people through this small entrance, but German snipers were killing them one after the other. I requested artillery troops to somehow blacken the square with smoke and they did it. We rushed to the first floor, but couldn't even look out of there - the Germans were shooting and throwing grenades from the second floor. Then I did my most heroic deed during wartime: I requested artillery firing to my coordinates. The artillery troops started firing to the second floor - they killed the Germans, but we survived. We went around the station - there was nobody left!

We moved on. There were connecting underground passages in Berlin through a whole block - from one corner to another. There were a few steel doors leading to the basements. I tried to open one and heard a shot. I drew back in time - somebody shot from down there. If it hadn't been for the steel door, there would have been nothing left of me. On 1st May there was another dangerous moment. It happened in the basement of a house. When we arrived there we saw many people and then somebody fired a gun and the bullet went through my cap. We began to search people and one of them, a thin German guy, had a gun in his pocket. This was the only person throughout the war whom I was sure I killed. I also captured another soldier wearing a German uniform in this basement, but he happened to be a Vlasov [17] soldier. He was wounded and we left him in the basement till morning. In the morning we found him hanged on a beam on his own belt in a sitting position. Nobody felt sorry for him. We had a bad attitude toward Vlasov soldiers.

On 2nd May, at 12 o'clock, Berlin surrendered. The war was over for us. On this day I wrote to my mother after a long interval - since December 1944. I had thought to myself that I had survived for a long time and that I would probably be killed and that she had better get used to the thought that there was no me. So I lived through the last months of the war with this attitude, but then there was a turning point in my heart and I believed that everything would end well for me. After Berlin surrendered, our unit marched in the direction of Prague in Czechoslovakia. We were at the border of Czechoslovakia, when the war was over. At night we got to a mine field and our unit had to walk step by step to avoid the mines, when all of a sudden we heard shooting somewhere in the rear. We turned our heads and saw tracer bullets flying by. This was a sign that the war was over. This happened at midnight, on 8th May.
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