Holocaust survivor killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv 96-year-old Boris Romantschenko survived four Nazi concentration camps. On March 18, he was killed in his home.
On March 18, 96-year-old Kharkiv resident Boris Romantschenko, who survived four Nazi concentration camps, died when his apartment was hit by a Russian shell. Romantschenko lived in North Saltovka, a district that’s been under fire since the earlier days of the war. According to his granddaughter, his apartment building "burned down completely."
Boris Romantschenko was born on January 20, 1926, in Bondary, a village near Sumy. He lived there with his parents and two sisters, according to a 2012 article about him in German newspaper Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ). During the Second World War, the village was occupied by the Germans, and in 1942, 16-year-old Romantschenko was deported to Germany to join the labor force.
“They made lists of all of the men ages 16 to 60 and gradually transported them to Germany — just to prevent an influx into the guerilla detachments [in Ukraine],” he told the Kharkiv TV station Objective in 2014.
Romantschenko was brought to Dortmund and sent to work in a mine. Several days after he arrived, there was an explosion, and one person died; Romantschenko and several other prisoners tried to escape but were unsuccessful. In January 1943, he was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. “Buchenwald is on a mountain, it gets terrible snowstorms; it’s very cold and damp in the winter. And what clothes did we have?” he said in another interview.
He initially worked in a quarry there, but was soon able to pose as a 22-year-old and be transferred to Peenemünde, where the V-2 ballistic missile was being developed. Romantschenko worked there for several months as a mechanic. After that, his team was sent to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, where he lived and worked in underground tunnels for several months. In March 1945, he was sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He later recalled the trip (from a video produced by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center):
“We had big, four-axle freight wagons, but they [the Germans] didn’t have them that big, they had two-axle ones. A hundred people stood, pressed up against each other, and they started to transport us. They did give us each something like a can of food and half a piece of bread. But we ate it all immediately. They drove us and drove us. And that was it — it was already 1945, and Germany was almost completely broken. [...] If someone died, the space wasn’t theirs any more, and we would just sit on [them]. And we traveled like that for seven days. I don’t remember if they gave us water or not, but there was nothing to eat, and we were traveling for seven days. Then we got to Bergen-Belsen. The camp itself, Bergen-Belsen, was already packed full. [...] They’d brought people there from all over Germany. [...] After seven days of hunger, [...] I didn’t have any energy left. I just had the strength to climb onto the second level of the bed, where I thought, ‘That’s it, you’re not getting out of here.’ Because they brought us there specifically to destroy us. I’m lying there, lying there, and then a guy from below climbs in and brings two rutabegas.”
When they arrived at Bergen-Belsen, Romantschenko weighed 39 kilograms (about 86 pounds). That April, the camp was liberated. According to an article from TLZ, he worked for three months in the Soviet military administration, then joined the Soviet army and stayed in East Germany until 1950. In an interview for the article, Romantschenko recalled seeing a man who had been the foreman in the tunnels at the Mittelbau-Dora camp. When Romantschenko asked him whether he had worked there, the man went pale, but he admitted it. Romantschenko then thanked him; he remembered the man secretly slipping bread and cigarettes to the prisoners.
When Romantschenko was 24 years old, he returned to the Ukrainian SSR and studied to become a mining engineer. He later said that he had really wanted to become a doctor, but he thought he was too old. According to TLZ, he later worked in agricultural machinery production. He retired in 1997, at the age of 71. Multiple articles confirm that he was a widower by that time, but he had a son and a granddaughter. Yulia, Romantschenko's granddaughter, told journalists after his death that he had “always supported her” and that he taught her how to read and write.
According to the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, Boris Romantschenko was the vice president of the Ukrainian chapter of the International Committee for Former Buchenwald-Dora Prisoners. He traveled to Buchenwald many times; according to a 2010 story dedicated to one of his trips, “Boris Timofeyevich explained that it’s difficult to be there, but it’s practically the only opportunity to meet with other people who survived the same terrible thing he did, and these people become fewer and fewer every year.”
During a trip there in 2015, according to an obituary on the Memorials Foundation’s website, Romantschenko read the Oath of Buchenwald, which includes the words “The destruction of Nazism, down to its roots, is our motto. To build a new world of peace and freedom is our ideal.” In 2018, the Kharkiv city administration reported that Romantschenko was taking another trip to the site, along with two other former prisoners.
“[My grandfather] told me a lot, he had a lot of stories. He had a manuscript, but I don’t know if my dad saved it or not. Grandpa wasn’t planning on publishing the book, he just wanted there to be something to remember him by after he was gone,” Yulia Romantschenko told Suspilne.
The website of the Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, which supports concentration camp survivors, contains recent updates about Boris Romantschenko. According to the site, Romantschenko lived alone in a one-room apartment on the eighth floor, suffered from leg pain, and needed help paying for medicine and a nurse.
According to Yulia, Romantschenko lived in his apartment in North Saltovka for over 30 years. “I suggested that he move, but he refused. He can’t walk well, can’t hear well, but wouldn’t leave,” she said. After the shell hit his apartment, “everything burned down completely,” said Yulia. “The only thing left were bones on the bed frame, just as he’d been lying.”
The Kharkiv authorities have vowed to help Romantschenko's family retrieve his remains from the apartment and to help with his funeral.