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elvira kohn

We reached Zagreb on 9th May 1945 around 5pm. We crossed the Sava bridge and arrived at the main square. The welcome was amazing. People were standing on the streets all over the city of Zagreb, waiting for us to come, clapping their hands, waving the flags. The atmosphere was magnificent, full of emotions, people were delighted and excited. Everyone knew that the war was over, that the Ustashas and the Germans had left the city, that Zagreb was liberated.

After the celebration on the main square, a group of us partisans, who had been together throughout the war, went to Zvonimirova Street, where the headquarters of Pavelic [9] used to be. We decided to sleep in the headquarters of Pavelic, as a statement of victory over the Ustashas. We were warned not to touch anything because there was danger that the Ustashas had left bombs and munition.

There was still a smell of smoke in the backyard of the headquarters; the Ustashas must have been burning the documents and papers just the day before when they were driven out. My first night in Zagreb, I slept on a table in Pavelic's headquarters, with an army coat and a gun underneath me.
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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 came around in a Tambov [today Russia] hospital. I had a concussion and an eye injury. There were fragments of shell in my eye. They said they would operate after the war, when they would have more time. They suggested removing my eye, but I refused. I had the fragment in my eye for 26 years, and only then I had it operated. I was moved to a hospital in Saratov [today Russia] from Tambov.
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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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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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There were all kinds of things at war: both tragic and usual. There were even anecdotes. Once in Ukraine, where the occupiers were Italians, we found a deserted truck with cans. We loaded ourselves with those cans, putting them in our pockets. I even put some of them in my pants and tied them up at the bottom. We could hardly reach our unit. When we opened them, there were tiny paws. It turned out that those were frogs. We could not eat them.
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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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There was one truck in our unit. I drove it - I had recently learnt to drive. I drove three members of the party, the commanders. I remembered one of them: Vaikus. In general, I was lucky to be able to drive and was ordered to take the Communists. There was no gas and I could not fill the car up. We went to the district town Telsiai. I was worried about my relatives, but I had neither a chance nor time to go to Rietavas. People weren't permitted to go there any more. Rietavas was closer to the border and the Germans had already occupied my town, besides my passengers were getting nervous and made me hurry. We arrived in Telsiai. I saw a large truck by the building of the district administration, where the leaders of the district, party members were sitting. My passengers joined them. I didn't think long and also jumped in the truck and we headed off.
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Eva Ryzhevskaya

We were moving forward. In spring 1943 we set foot in our motherland again: liberated Dneprodzerzhinsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov. Our division took Zaporozhie, then Nikolayev. Our division was conferred an Order of the Red Star for the liberation of Nikolayev. After that we liberated Odessa. We rushed into Odessa unexpectedly and had taken the enemy aback. The Germans were running around outside in underwear. Then there was Nikopol. For the liberation of the latter our entire squad, including me, was issued a commendation. I was awarded the Order of the Great Patriotic War [33], 2nd Class, for the liberation of Odessa.
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The siege of Stalingrad began on 13th September 1943 [see Stalingrad Battle] [27]. The plant was totally demolished because of systematic shooting by the Germans. Only bricks were left of the plant. Bombings and shooting were almost constant. Germans had been firing from morning till night, so we had to move to the basement of a semi-devastated house. We used bunks as operating tables. The most important was that the wounded were put on the bunks so we could remove the fragments of shells, suppress hemorrhage. The squads that were fighting in Stalingrad brought us the wounded straight from the battles. There was no light in the basement and some Uzbek soldiers were told to help us. They were afraid of the blasts. And the latter were constant, sometimes with the interval of a few seconds. As soon as the blast started, the Uzbeks lay down on the floor. There was no way we could interrupt operations. Such a fragile girl as I had to command, 'Get up, immediately!' They got up, and lit the candles at once.
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In summer 1942 our division was sent to Stalingrad. We approached the left bank of Stalingrad, but we were supposed to cross to the right bank. There were not enough boats. We were told that boats were used to transport equipment. Those who knew how to swim were supposed to swim to the opposite bank. I was lucky that I had been a good swimmer since childhood. I took off the uniform and boots and put them in a bundle. I tied it up to my head and swam to the other bank in my underwear. The Volga is a very wide river, and the place where we were positioned was a rather narrow part of the Volga - not exceeding 500 meters. I managed to reach the opposite bank. At that time the Germans had not started fire yet.
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Henrich Kurizkes

We were not spoiled by awards in our Estonian Corps. I don't know why, but we didn't receive awards as often as they did in other units. I had two awards: Medal for Military Merits [40] and an Order for the Great Patriotic War [41] 2nd Grade. Later, after the war, I received awards dedicated to the Victory and Soviet army anniversaries.

There were commissars, political officers, in the Estonia Corps and in other units in the Soviet army. They conducted political training and engaged themselves in all proceedings. Of course, there were also SMERSH [42] officers, both Estonian and Russian ones. They were involved in hiring informers among us. We even knew some of these informers. A few of our soldiers were transferred to SMERSH and they were even awarded officers' ranks. I was lucky in this respect: they never tried to involve me.

SMERSH representatives were continuously mixing with the staff of the Estonian Corps, but they usually disappeared before combat actions. They preferred to watch the actions from a distance. We also had a rear unit in the Corps. They moved behind us and God forbid if a combatant decided to turn back: they were allowed to shoot and kill. Fortunately, there were no such cases in our regiment, though I came to the front at the turning point of the war. We never retreated. We advanced or stayed where we were, but we didn't retreat.

I joined the Party during the war. These were mass events, and officers were required to be party members. Our political officer convinced me to join. He was a very intelligent man. I wasn't eager to join the party, but nor did I mind.
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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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